New Seconds weekend with the Boston AMC crowd can be a good time to meet a future climbing partner, but I didnt realize thats what happened last year until much later. After all, Wally and I hadnt climbed together either day. We just shared the usual kind of stories that go around in the party atmosphere of Saturday nights dinner.
I met Wally, aka Chris Walton, when he came over and joined mutual friends at our table. Our climbing tales ranged widely and soon he was rhapsodizing about a classic combination of routes hed done in Yosemite: Royal Arches and North Dome. Id climbed this pair myself a few years back and completely agreed with him. Its worth doing even if Royal Arches is highly advertised in Roper and Stecks book, 50 Classic Climbs of North America, and routinely crowded. It often seems that way when a peak or a route gets named as such. A mountain range can be filled with good climbs, but the one singled out by the title of classic too often becomes the crowded destination.
Of course, Im often part of the crowd, too. I like the aesthetic lines and historic character of classic mountain routes and Ive got a long list of classic projects that I work on sporadically. Around June, I decided to work on that list in the Tetons. I contacted Wally, who was making an extended climbing trip throughout the west, and we agreed to rendezvous at the Climbers Ranch in August.
The objective I suggested was the North Face of the Grand. Admittedly, this is another route from the same 50 Crowded Classics volume, but one Id been absorbed with since my first trip to the Tetons. Id put it off in the past for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that the Grand is the consummate crowd magnet. Its just so obvious from the park road that your eyes tend to lock in on it to the exclusion of all the rest of the range. On my two previous trips to the Tetons Id deliberately avoided the Grand so that I could explore other summits. But this year I found myself thinking again about that one peak.
So I was disappointed at first to learn that there were virtually no camping permits in the Garnet Canyon region when Wally and I met out there. Id hoped to camp on the saddle and traverse around so that we wouldnt have to carry our packs on the route. There actually were two or three camping spots in Garnet available each night, but the line outside the Rangers Cabin to get them began to form well before the 8 oclock opening. The first day I tried to get a permit, I went down at about 6 a.m. and was third in line. There were two sites available. The next time, I went at 5:30, and was fifth in line. A sign on the door said there were three sites open. I was disgusted and left. But as I was getting ready to drive out of the parking lot, I began to notice the rest of the range. Of course, theres more than the Grand! Why had I let one goal become a fixation? We were here to climb, not stand in line.
By the time Id returned to the Ranch, I knew what the alternative should be. Wally, lets go do the Direct South Buttress on Moran. I dont know if he was convinced at first. Look at the route description. This is no consolation prize. Its a gem. It really is. The South Buttress is a broad, steep flank of the massive mountain that dominates the northern part of the range. The ridge off of the south side drops steeply into Leigh Canyon forming a truncated arete that ends in a thousand foot prow. The Direct route begins on the nearly vertical left edge of the South Buttress face and follows a steep line upward, eventually ending in an enormous bowl below the ridge. Wally, this line is a classic: solid rock, great climbing, and a pendulum traverse. And it has the added plus of a remote setting. That last point seemed to me to be a key issue. The South Buttress is in that Crowded Climbs book, too, but I knew first-hand that walking in to it is not an easy approach. Id been to the Buttress twice previously. My first trip there had been on foot and it was a grunt with little to recommend it. My partner and I made an ambitious attempt on the right side but we were rained off a few pitches up, a disappointing reward for the sweaty bushwack around the north side of Leigh Lake. Then Id learned about the advantage of taking a canoe across the lake to access Leigh Canyon. We boated on the second try and managed to cruise across the lake in under two hours. But though the start was improved, that trip met a similar end as we were rained out again. Perhaps the third time would be charmed. Conditions this year seemed ideal: the weather was dry and stable. Wally listened to my sales pitch and warmed up to the idea as he looked over the route description. I headed out to Dornans and rented a canoe.
The following morning we put in at the String Lake boat launch and paddled a little less than a mile to a short portage across to Leigh Lake. It was easy going and we only paused briefly to observe a cinnamon colored black bear grazing in the berry bushes near the shore. Leigh Lake is fairly large and afternoon storms can whip up whitecaps at a moments notice. But this day there was hardly a breeze blowing and we headed directly away from shore towards the canyon. After a comfortable cruise we put in by the campsite at the far end.
A scratch trail led up the canyon from the campsite bear box. We cut up right on a cairn-marked trail after 200 yards and continued to follow cairns uphill across grassy rock terraces to first of five or so talus slopes. We were able to use the cairns to get us through the first three of these, but they ended at the fourth rock field, where theyd probably been wiped out by winter avalanches. We traversed the last two talus bands more or less horizontally, then intersected the stream drainage and continued uphill about one-quarter mile, until we were directly below Laughing Lion Falls. Here we met the first people wed seen in the backcountry. They were on a day hike from the lake and had scrambled a few miles up the drainage. They told us they saw no other people, just some fresh bear scat about a half a mile back. They headed back down to the lake and we walked directly uphill towards a large, flat-topped boulder to make our bivouac.
The one serious mishap of the trip occurred just a few minutes before we reached our bivouac site. The talus extending upward from the stream contained many loose boulders, stones, and scree. Both Wally and I found ourselves suddenly dropping into surfing stances as unstable blocks spun free and we strove to keep from being thrown over. Wallys misfortune was to have one wobbler spin awkwardly and pitch him forward. I was a few feet ahead and missed the action but heard the loud Shit! that accompanied his fall. He wasnt badly hurt, but he had a goose egg-size bump over one eye for the rest of the trip.
We arose early the next morning and started out of camp by the light of our headlamps. We walked up to the long grassy ramp west of Laughing Lion Falls and then followed it around left to far side of the prow of the buttress. We confirmed our location with the route description we carried and roped up at an obvious chimney that begins the climb. I felt good that we were climbing by 7. We could see high clouds in the sky that indicated the arrival of moist air. Thered been no inclement weather in the range for nearly a week and we hoped the stable conditions would persist. But if a change was coming, I wanted to be done early and on the ground before the rains hit.
Two quick pitches got us out of the chimney. From there we needed to gain a ledge system that followed up the left side of the prow. It was when we were moving up in this section that we encountered a bit of loose rock. It happened on Wallys lead and he was faced with a short stretch of steep 5.8 climbing up a black, mica-rich section with some detached material. But that was the exception. As we continued to climb above the ledge we moved onto hard, sound granite. We fell into a rhythm and swung leads steadily through the middle pitches of the route. Our only complaint was that some of the specific details described in Jacksons route description seemed confusing or were not readily recognizable. But the climbing was delightful, containing excellent sections of 5.6 to 5.8 difficulty. We continued past sharp-edged flakes linked together by chimneys and cracks.
The ninth pitch was perhaps my most exciting lead. This part of the climb involved an exposed traverse around to the right of an arete. I made a series of delicate balance moves across a narrow ledge, a sequence that felt a little more precarious as I worked across because I couldnt find any place for gear as I went. Finally, I made the right end and looked up around the corner where I saw a thin crack sprouting fixed pins. I made a thankful clip and kept on moving. Soon I was below a large roof where I could anchor myself into the fixed iron that marked the belay for the pendulum pitch.
I was happy to let Wally swing into his lead up the face. He clipped the old quarter inch bolt and lowered himself on tension to begin the pendulum right across the smooth face. A little rocking brought him to the next fixed gear, then it was clip and lower again, swinging further to his right. He quickly reached a little ledge and from there he aided up a short, overhanging crack to a ledge. Much of the aid gear was already in place, which helped to save time. Still, I was impressed with how efficiently Wally worked through the steps of this pitch and how he set it up to be easy on his second, too. We were using double ropes, which meant that I could be belayed on one and lowered on the second as I followed through the pendulums. And while Wally had taken his aiders over the top with him, hed left a couple of slings strategically placed on the gear so I could haul myself up when I followed. It only seemed like a few minutes after hed called On belay that I joined him at the ledge, ready to tackle the last technical problem.
This eleventh and final pitch involved a moderately difficulty but spectacularly exposed hand traverse out to the east. As I worked across, I buried my hands behind a massive flake, pausing only to set a cam or to look down at a thousand feet of exposure. I turned a corner and stepped out onto the broad slabs at the top of the buttress. Wally came across and we relaxed with some food and water. It had been seven hours since wed started up the chimney.
We descended to the east, eventually joining up with the rappel route from the South Buttress Right. This portion of the face is considerably lower than where we started and our descent required ten double rope rappels. We were further slowed down by the discovery that the rap stations were not rigged in a direct line. More than once we lost time swinging from near the ropes end, trying to find the slings for the next rappel. In the end, we left five slings either to beef up the rats nests left by previous parties or as new anchors when we couldnt find any others.
We made it back to camp at 6 p.m. Although the changing weather system had brought no precipitation, the winds had picked up so much that our tent was flattened. I wondered if a storm was brewing and, after a few minutes discussion, we decided to move to the campground by the shore of Leigh Lake. We quickly packed up and retraced our approach route, arriving where wed left our canoe by dusk. But when we reached the lake, we saw that conditions had greatly improved. Only a light breeze now swept across the lake and the surface was textured with nothing more than gentle ripples. In a minute we knew what we were going to do and we tied our packs into the boat. We shoved off in fading light and had hardly made headway when darkness truly closed in. As I studied the shoreline, I had trouble distinguishing the outline of trees from the inky sky behind. I was tired and felt concerned about being on the water at night. But we kept going and I saw we would be okay. As we continued, our conversation lapsed. There wasnt much we could have said that would have improved on the steady, rhythmic splash of the paddles.
Although wed cut across the middle of the lake on the way over, we found we couldnt gauge our direction as easily coming back in the dark. So we adopted the tactic of paddling parallel to the shore, just beyond where we might encounter submerged snags. This made the journey longer, but it seemed more prudent in case the wind and waves began to kick up again. We continued in this fashion as the moonless night became deeper black and we traveled into a zone of serenity. What little breeze thered been when we started gradually faded to stillness and the lake surface became like glass decorated with the reflection of stars. I was physically tired but emotionally supercharged and I stared mutely at the display of constellations duplicated before me.
We moved slowly and our rest breaks became frequent; we were dehydrated and the day was getting long. It was past 11 when we arrived back at the boat launch, eighteen hours after starting the day. I finally realized how exhausted I was when I struggled to help put the canoe back on the roof of Wallys truck. About then I noticed we were the only ones in the parking lot. The two of us by the lone truck in an empty parking lot seemed to sum up our days experience. Even in this crowded place wed done a climb in virtual solitude, on one of those so-called Crowded Classics we talk about at parties.