Climbing – Danger – Falling – Failure – Adventure – South Buttress Central on Mount Moran
South Buttress Central Teton Rock Climb – Trip Report
Over the years I have had many adventures in the mountains, but this trip to the South Buttress of Mount Moran was a little different. Those of you who are familiar with climbing in the Tetons will know that the South Buttress of Mount Moran holds some of the most challenging routes in the park. Leigh Ortenburger in his Climbers Guide to the Teton Range describes the climb as a “very difficult and daring route that has finally taken its place in the front rank among major Teton routes along with other South Buttress lines on Mount Moran.”I have climbed many routes on Mount Moran, and the last of the mega-classics that I had yet to climb was South Buttress Central. The route involves over 6000 vertical feet of climbing, including over 1500 feet of difficult technical terrain, with the remainder of the 4000+including steep exposed scrambling and challenging route finding. The approach into Leigh Canyon requires a canoe ride across String Lake and portage over to Leigh Lake where you paddle to the entrance of the canyon. A couple hours of bushwacking and navigation lead to the base of the massive face. Our objective was to climb the technical face, make our way up to a notch in the ridge, bivy overnight, continue on to the summit, and descend via the South-East Couloir. We carried bivy gear and everything we would need for two nights in the mountains. Our packs weren’t exactly light.
The route is South Buttress Central and rates 5.10 R and is characterized by an very difficult, run-out pitch in the middle of it (about 1000 feet from the valley floor.) Run Out (R) means that there is a significant distance between places where you can place climbing protection and thus protect against a big fall. This requires confidence and ability to climb long distances on very challenging and technically difficult terrain – without falling.
I had laid awake in bed the night before our departure dreaming of the the 5.10 R pitch and knew that this would be one of my greatest challenges yet – if I drew the luck of the draw with the lead. My climbing partner was Gary Falk, who I have shared many adventures with over the years and I have total confidence as a partner. In fact, Gary has caught me on many big falls in the mountains, so much that he has nick-named me Jeronimo!
After the canoe and approach, we bivied (Short for Bivouac) at the base of the route on Saturday night. The next morning we woke just before sunrise and approached the route. Other than a bit of route finding to get onto the third pitch, things were going well. Gary and I had simul-climbed (where both climbers move together as a time saving technique in the mountains) over 500 feet of the route and we had progressed nicely to the crux of the route, which is more than 1000 feet above the valley floor. As some kind of luck would have it, it was my turn to lead, and we were at the crux 5.10 run out. As I stood there staring at the route thoughts of doubt filled my mind. Was I prepared enough for this challenge? Had my training this spring been enough for this?Â Would all my experience in the mountains allow me to overcome this challenge? What would happen if I fell? So what if it was my turn to lead, should I back down and give the lead to Gary?
I looked at the blank face and saw that two old bolts had been replaced and determined that, if I could make it to the bolts, they would hold a significant leader fall. I knew that Gary would catch me and that a fall would not end in death unless something significantly odd happened in a fall. I felt the weight on my back of the big pack… A flash came over me and I fired off my climbing mantras to get in an optimal psychological state of being for the climb. I climbed the first steep lie-back section from the anchor and stepped out to find a nice cam placement (climbing protection for a fall) a few feet onto the face. Delicate and difficult moves brought me to a precarious position balanced on quarter-sized foot holds and small hand-ledge. I paused to attempt a gear placement which I stuck a small alien piece, which I felt doubtful would hold if I fell – and kept climbing. A few steps up and I made it to the first bolt on the face. An initial wave of relief came over me as I heard the click of the quick-draw into the bolt. I had made it to the first bolt! I stepped down a couple feet and traversed over onto tiny ledges, using side pulls and friction to keep me on the rock. The sweat rolled down my face and Gary reminded me to keep breathing. I made it to the next crux section and analyzed the rock for position and movement. It seemed nearly impossible as I adjusted my body position and maneuvered several different ways. My arms began to burn. The pack seemed to weigh 1000 pounds. I committed. I steped up and went for the move, and as I did,Â my foot slipped off the polished granite and I fell. I let out a scream, which Gary is pretty familiar with, and swung down and out across the face. The swinging fall was only about 10 feet and all-in-all, not too bad. I immediately knew that I could adjust my strategy and climb through that crux. I took a few breaths and climbed back up to my previous position. This time I moved slightly differently, with a strong committing side pull and more intense friction with my feet. I stepped up and made it. My next position was no easier. I tip-toed across and up the face on tiny hand holds, continuing to breathe. Another sequence of difficult rock moves led me to the second bolt. I stretched slowly toward the bolt and just made the clip. It was how I had envisioned it the night before in my bed… After a short rest and breathing, I moved up through very difficult moves. This was definitely 5.10 climbing. Later I would find out that the rating is actually 5.10 D – which means that in the 5.10 range of climbing it is the most difficult. I used everything in my power to move through another difficult sequence and found myself about 10 feet above my bolt. The climbing continued to be very hard and in fact, this seemed to be the most difficult section. Just 5 feet above the holds seemed bigger and there seemed to be a place to rest. But I couldn’t figure out this sequence in front of me. The sweat poured down now. I jammed my middle finger, which had an open burn wound on my knuckle, in the smallest of inset cracks, I shifted, I balanced, and I screamed. “AHHHHHH!” “Relax, Relax,” came the words of encouragement from Gary. I did, and that bought me about another ten seconds to figure this out. My fore-arms flared and my mouth was dry and my mind began to go into a dark place of fear and failure. With one final attempt I went for the move through the crux…. another scream and off the rock I came…. falling 1000 feet above the valley floor… 5 feet… 10, 15, 20… attached to two small ropes… I twisted on the way down and then the impact came. A stinging feeling in my left ankle. I hung in defeat some 25 feet below where I had progressed to, and grabbed my ankle to assess the damage. I was in shock. Never have I been in a situation like this. I have climbed for years and years of and overcome difficult climbs, scary situations, and even long run-outs. I managed to make my way back over to Gary who felt my ankle. For a moment, there was still a possibility of continuing on. We considered our circumstances, what lie ahead, and the reprecussions of a bad decision at this point. The thought of continuing to climb went away as I put pressure on my ankle and felt sharp shooting pain. “Sorry, Man. We have to bail.” We were now in a position of self-rescue and having to find a way back down and out – all with one functional foot.
Gary stepped up and we orchestrated a long sequence of events involving counter-balancing and prussicking, rappelling off of minimal gear placements and short-roping down steep granite slabs. Hours later and significant spurts of pain we made it back to our canoe, and eventually to the parking lot, just as the night overcame us into darkness…
So WHAT? Climbing is an adventure, involves risk, and it’s dangerous. That’s largely what attracts me to it. Reflecting back on the climb I wonder what led to my fall on this “dangerous and daring” route. Here’s what I learned. To be continuously ready for significant challenges, you need to PREPARE. In the climbing world, this means training – hard and often. And yes, I could have been more prepared for this route. I’m not sure what effect this had, but another thing I determined was that my wrist-band that I always wear, was left on a beach stop on the approach to the climb. My wrist-band anchor was not with me on my climb. That could have made the difference. Another thing I learned is that there are times to give up the lead when your not 100% ready and confident for the lead. What role had my own ego played in this decision? Part of my identity as a climber is stepping up to a challenge. That’s part of the game, and that’s what you have to do. However, as in life, there is a time to lead and a time to follow. Giving up the lead to Gary could have been the right thing. Just having come off of three months of alpine climbing, Gary was clearly more prepared than I for difficult crux climbs with a heavy mountaineering pack.
So what does any of this mean to you? Maybe just an adventurous story. Or maybe a poignant reminder that when faced with a difficult challenge, it’s important to evaluate your resources, and to make a conscious choice of leading and following. On the other hand, had I pulled off that one crux move, could I have “sent” the rest of the climb successfully? These questions and more will certainly be on my mind as I work and recover from my badly sprained ankle over the next few weeks. All and all, I will be fine. I will recover, and I will again seek my freedom and adventure in the mountains….