Great Expectations (5.5)
Location: Wichita Mountain Wildlife Refuge, Charons Gardens Wilderness Area, Elk Slabs
Spec: 3 pitch, 5.5 slab/easy crack climbing
Great Aspirations and Great Adventures on Great Expectations
Whether it’s an alpine winter ascent, a last minute end-of the-day stroll, or an all-day round-trip adventure, Great Expectations promises to be fun. Located on Elk Slabs in the heart of the Wichita Mountains, you will not find an older and more classic line than Great Expectations. Rumor has it that it was first climbed in the late 1930’s or early 1940’s and may have been the first line established in the Wichitas.
There are many variations to climbing Great Expectations but the first two pitches remain pretty much the same for most parties. The first pitch climbs a slab alongside an ever-deepening crack system that is ideal for placing cams. By the way, this was my first traditional lead and I think it’s a great first lead for anyone interested in learning to trad climb. The first pitch is long, you’ll want to use a 60 meter rope. Climb until the crack nearly disappears and you see a tree on a large ledge to your right. At this point, place a good directional piece of gear (a small cam works great), step up and right onto the right face and traverse right to a 2-bolt belay anchor.
The second pitch heads directly up the slab from the belay station to the vertical wall above (appears as a roof from the belay station) and then traverses left using the crack for gear placements. Continue left and clip the bolt(s) at the first corner. If you like, you may belay from here, otherwise, continue to the second corner and belay from there. The third pitch is where is gets a little iffy. There are several different things you can do: you may follow one of the vertical cracks up the steep face overhead (like Buns Up) or you may head directly up a slab similar to the one you climbed above the first belay station. I prefer the latter method, frankly, this is the only line I’ve ever followed for Great Expectations. Climb this slab until you reach a crack that heads left and angles down. This is a strange part of the route but it is also very fun. The climb ends on the upper left side of the slab next to a large cedar tree.
A note for the leader: on the traversing pitches even if the climbing seems easy to you, you should place enough gear for the follower so if they were to fall they wouldn’t take a big swing. Take special consideration on the end of the third pitch, since you are actually down-climbing the last part it might be better for them to leave the gear in and protect themselves on top-rope. Once they reach the belay you can climb back up and remove the gear.
Finding Great Expectations is easy, you can clearly see it from the Post Oak Lake parking lot on the southwest end of the refuge, however, getting there may prove to be a bit more difficult if it’s your first time hiking there. First, find a good map at the refuge headquarters or consult a guidebook. The trail from the Post Oak Lake parking area runs along Treasure Lake (Treasure Lake is the long lake just east of the parking area) to the Crank Boulder Formation and then to the Waterfall Wall. Head uphill, north and east, of the waterfall until the trail curves around east and Elk Slabs becomes visible again. You’ll pass a few house-sized boulders and then reach a cave-like formation of boulders. Go through the opening and head directly uphill on a steep, thorn infested trail until you reach a slab. Climb the low-angle slab to a shady tree at the base of Elk Slabs.
The other way to approach Elk Slabs is by parking at the Sunset parking area and hiking around from the north end. This trail takes you through the boulder field and beneath the Pear and Apple formation. This hike is a bit longer but it makes for a great day adventure to do the hike, the climb, and then hike off the backside of Elk Slabs.
There are many different ways to descend Elk Slabs, I’ll go ahead and warn you that none of them are easy. Descent #1: you can hike down the left gully directly beneath where you ended. This way isn’t that bad but it’s a good idea to have a pair of shoes or sandals with you instead of climbing shoes. The gully gets step in a couple of spots but it never feels that scary. Descent #2: you can back-climb or rappel to a 2-bolt belay station in the middle of Elk Slabs. This way will require 2 ropes and some interesting tensions-traversing technique. The final way, and perhaps the best way, is to walk off the backside of Elk Slabs towards the Sunset parking area. For this method, park at Sunset and approach Elk Slabs from the north…this method is best for climbers familiar with the area and those who have climbed Elk Slabs before. If you haven’t hiked off the backside of Elk Slabs to Sunset before I’m guaranteeing that you will get lost at least once.
Great Expectations is a very popular route because of its length, its relaxing nature, its views, and its style. It can be climbed in the middle of winter because it gets a lot of sun, however, summertime can be extremely hot but that goes for most of the other areas in the Wichitas.
If you are looking for a great adventure and a solid classic check out Great Expectations.