Pain and Suffering

Climbing America's Eiger

By Bill Wright (
August 1996

Tuesday morning never looked so good
I'm already in... in a daydream
The sun is shining, No one around
Just me and the sky
			The Freddy Jones Band
It's just before 7 a.m. and the Trashman and I are paddling a canoe across the glassy surface of Leigh Lake. Yesterday we climbed the Direct South Buttress of Mt. Moran. We didn't return to our camp until 8 p.m. - too late to paddle back to civilization - and we were forced to spend another night. Low on food, a PowerBar had to suffice for dinner. But today, we cut a smooth path across the mountains, trees, and clouds that are perfectly reflected in the lake's surface. We are headed for a double breakfast at Dornan's. We had just spent four days climbing two classic climbs under perfect skies.

North Face of the Grand Teton

Five days ago we left town on the 210th anniversary of Picard and Balmat's first ascent of Mt. Blanc. Their ascent marked the beginning of climbing as a sport and a whole type of climbing was named after the range: alpine climbing. We were headed for America's Eiger - as the North Face of the Grand Teton has been called. The technical difficulties are similar, but the Eiger's north face is more than twice as tall, climbs worse rock, and involves more ice climbing. What they do have in common is objective danger.

The drive up to the Tetons passes the Wind River mountains, home to two of the 50CC . I've only climbed the two classic routes, but the Trashman has climbed extensively in this range. As we passed by he mused over these "lofty summits of summers passed." Hiking into high camp on the 18th anniversary of Reinhold Messner's shocking first solo ascent of an 8000 meter peak on Nanga Parbat. This was the mountain that claimed his brother on their first trip to the Himalayas. Then Reinhold descended the monstrous and unclimbed Diamir Face a shell of a man. I hoped to fair better the next day.

After obtaining our backcountry permit, we plodded up the steep, sunny trail. It was ninety degrees out and I was sweating profusely. Three thousand vertical feet later we took a long break at Surprise Lake. Our destination was the desolate and barren moraine below the Teton Glacier and we had no desire to hang out there any longer than necessary. It was much better to watch the bikinied wildlife down here at the lake.

The next morning when the alarm went off we only nestled deeper into our bags. Even after breakfast we were reluctant to get going...until we saw the headlamps coming out way. There were probably only two routes these climbers could be heading for: either the North Ridge or the North Face, but I assumed it would be the much more popular North Ridge. I was wrong. Damn. They walked on by as we hurried to get out gear packed. Soon we were in pursuit.

We passed this party gearing up for the glacier, but we'd see them again. Crunching across the Teton glacier underneath the brooding gaze of the North Face, I was nervous. I was confident in our technical skills, but this face presented objective dangers that were beyond our control. Rockfall was our biggest danger. That and a sudden storm. We both wore brain buckets, but they wouldn't help us if a large rock came down. Here speed would be a major factor in determining our safety. We mustn't linger in the danger zones. Starting up the North Face I tried not to think about the tragic death of Alan Rouse on K2 exactly ten years ago. In 1986 an international mix of ten climbers from various expeditions were trapped at the highest camp on K2 by a ferocious storm. The altitude, coupled with their lack of food and fuel to melt snow, started to kill them. Two died in their tents, including Rouse. With the storm showing no signs of letting up, they made a desperate attempt to descend. Their bodies littered the slopes as they succumbed to fatigue and the elements. Only one reached the base alive. Another was rescued a short ways above base. The rest died.

The first exploration of the north face was done in 1933 by Paul Petzoldt. He traversed in from the North Ridge to check out the route possibilities, but it wasn't until 1936 that he made the first ascent with his brother Eldon and Jack Durrance. Durrance was an exceptional climber, one of the most famous climbers of the day, and he did most of the leading. They were stymied up the last 500 feet and traversed off to the North Ridge on what is known as the "Second Ledge."

The complete North Face wasn't climbed until 1949 by Dick Pownall, Ray Garner, and Art Gilkey. In the fading light of dusk, Pownall unlocked the key to the upper face with his brilliant lead of the "Pendulum Pitch." This pitch would be freed on the second ascent in 1953 by Dick Emerson. Remember that name. We crunched our way up the Teton Glacier towards the north face. Near the face there is a steep ice fall, but we easily bypass it on the right. At the top of the last bit of steep snow, we could span the moat and gain the rock face itself. The rival team started a bit west of us and probably on route. Which of course put us off route. The climbing here was loose, dangerous, steep, and 5.9. The Trashman had to aid a short section because we hadn't switched into our rock boots yet. I switch to rock shoes before following this lead. By this time we knew we were off route and in trouble and we headed right whenever we could. This was the most dangerous part of the whole climb.

When we eventually got back on route things went much easier but we were now behind the other team. This didn't last long as they made a route finding mistake leading up to the Guano Chimney and we went by for good.

Guano Chimney is very steep and provides surprisingly clean and interesting climbing at 5.7. Once past this pitch we were at the bottom of the First Ledge. Trashman took over the lead and we simul-climbed up the long, low angled ramp to its very top. Here we took a brief break for some food and water. I found the start of the next pitch just west of the prow of the First Ledge. This vertical pitch is marked with some old pitons and I found the climbing to be very challenging, probably 5.8, but the runout, ice at the top, and extreme length (about 190 feet) make it seem harder. It turns out to be my toughest lead on the face.

Trashman takes over the lead and soon he is starting up the Second Ledge, but doesn't get too far before he is stopped by a flow of water covering the entire ledge. He brings me up so that I can belay closer to the action and then he dives into a wet corner to place the only protection in the next one hundred feet. Now we must move up and ridge across the slab and through the water. The ledge isn't very steep, but he's climbing water, not rock. After a few tense minutes he is across the streak and onto dry rock. Following this section I'd get careless and lose my footing twice. I took over the lead again and moved upwards on indistinct rock searching for the Third Ledge and the start of the infamous Pendulum Pitch. I must have been on route because I looked up and immediately recognized the rock above me. There is a photo of Leigh Ortenburger negotiating this pitch in "Fifty Classic Climbs of North America" and I knew the photo well.

The Trashman headed up the crux pitch with me giving him directions from below. At one point he wanted to make the traverse too early. You'd think the guy hadn't been here before, but in fact he has followed this pitch previously when he did the Italian Cracks variation of the North Ridge. This pitch is simply tremendous. It is continuously challenging, very steep, clean, and without question the best pitch on the face.

Following the dicey traverse I was impressed by the climbers who came before me and placed these pitons and my leader who had just clipped them. At one point I had to stand up on the tiny ledge I was scooting across. The wall above me bulged outwards and below me was three thousand feet of exposure. Tiny, rounded irregularities were all I could find for my fingers. This is dicey, exciting climbing!

Once at the belay we realized we were already on the Fourth Ledge - the final ledge. There was only one hard pitch to go - the scary "Traverse into the V." The Trashman led almost a full rope length up the Fourth Ledge to the start of the traverse pitch. This involved a short, difficult, wide section over a slight bulge. With a pack on, this felt 5.7.

The "Traverse into the V" started off with some loose steep climbing. The rock here isn't very good and it was wet. The protection is sparse and dubious. I wondered if I was on route, but then I saw the "V." The "V" consists of a low point between two points of rock. Once at this low point, the climbing is reduced to scrambling. Getting to this low point is a serious matter. I clipped an old piton and started the unprotected face climbing before thinking about it too long. The moves out of the dihedral are tricky. The holds are good enough, but the position makes the climbing exciting. This would be terrifying if wet and impossible if icy. I set up a belay in the "V" and bring up the Trashman. We are psyched. The rest should be easy and indeed it goes smoothly. We simul-climb the 4th class terrain up to the summit block. Here you can attack it directly via a final 5.9 move over the overhang onto the very summit or you can go around it. After such a great climb the direct approach seemed to the appropriate finish.

We found the summit crowded with 15 people and tons more festooned on the descent. It was a zoo, but we were just as much a part of it as anyone else. It was a great day to be on top of the Grand Teton. The perfect weather had lured the crowds. Most everyone had come up the Owens-Spalding and the Exum route. One party had done the East Ridge and another the North Ridge. We lounged around and ate the rest of our lunch. It was 2:30 p.m. On the descent a big queue had formed at the first rappel and these people were the slowest rappellers I have ever seen. When arrived at the rappel we were told to "get in line." The chimney was icy, but upon closer inspection easily downclimbable by staying to the side of the ice. I started down to confirm my hypothesis and soon called up for George to follow. In this way we passed eight climbers.

At the Owen-Spalding rappel there are another ten people waiting for their turn to rappel and, if it was possible, this group was slower. We scrambled around to the two single rope rappels and bypassed the crowd. This was also required since we only had one rope. Two quick rappels later we were stripping off the harnesses and coiling the rope. We continued down the Owen-Spalding route, through the Needle's Eye and down nearly to the Lower Saddle before taking the Black Dike Traverse past the start to the Direct Exum, the Petzoldt Ridge and the Underhill Ridge. We then climbed to the col between the Grand and TeePee Pillar and pulled out our axes for the steep snow descent. I glissaded this in curious fashion, having gloves, while the Trashman was left to painstakingly downclimb the snowfield. My technique was to stand up and face into the slope. In this way I could steady myself with my free hand and control my speed with my ax. Sitting down wasn't an option I wanted to consider since I didn't have any waterproof pants. I waited a long time at the Disappointment Peak/Grand Teton col for the Trashman to catch up. Then we descended another long, steep snowfield back to our moraine camp.

We packed up and were hiking out by 6 p.m. We did the descent in about 2.5 hours and gawked at a small grizzly bear on the way down. It was a tiring 15.5 hour day. After calling home, we went back to the Lupine Meadows parking lot to sleep.

Direct South Buttress of Mt. Moran

I was bruised and battered.
I couldn't tell what I felt.
I was unrecognizable to myself.
Saw my reflection in a window
and didn't know my own face
		Bruce Springsteen

Mt. Moran, while over a thousand feet lower than the Grand Teton, is a much bigger mountain. It's immense, complex bulk is rarely climbed because there are no easy routes and no maintained trails that access the mountain - a perfect setting for adventure climbing. Below is a table of the highest mountains in the Tetons. It clearly shows the domination of the Grand Teton over this range. However, The Grand Teton is not the highest mountain in Wyoming. That honor goes to Gannett Peak in the Wind River Range. The Winds have a lot more 13,000 foot peaks (almost 40) and are more heavily glaciated than the Tetons, but for sheer grandeur the Tetons are unrivaled. These mountains rise 7000 feet above the flat plains with no intervening foothills. There aren't many mountains in the lower 48 states that rise 7000 feet from base to summit.

Mt. Moran was first climbed via the Skillet Glacier route in 1924 and only received ten more ascents in the next seven years. The South Ridge wasn't climbed until 1935. Then Richard Emerson once again appears. In June of 1953 he climbed most of what is considered to be the Direct South Buttress. On this attempt, the Double Pendulum pitch forced him to retreat. But on a second attempt on August 30th of that year, he completed this famous pitch. Above he bivouacked with his partners, Don Decker and Leigh Ortenburger, and the next day they continued to the summit. At the time it was the most difficult climb in the country.

The best way to approach Mt. Moran is via canoe. It makes for a unique trip and we excitedly drove off toward Dornan's for an authentic, outdoor, chuckwagon style breakfast. Oh, and an aluminum canoe . After breakfast we had the distinct pleasure of renting our canoe from a cantankerous, curmudgeon named Fred. Nevertheless, Fred was efficient in loading a canoe onto the top of my Saab 9000 and we were soon headed for the String Lake boat landing.

We weren't in any hurry since the lake crossing supposedly took less than two hours and then we only had to hike about a mile up the drainage to a campsite. We spread our gear all across the parking lot and slowly organized our gear. While doing this we watched an older European woman assembling a canvas and wood kayak. It was an ingenious, intriguing vessel. I was amazed at our small it could be packed up. But it took a long time for her to assemble it.

Eventually we were ready. We threw our packs into the bottom of our aluminum canoe and pushed off from shore. I was the the helmsman at the rear of the craft. At first we zig-zagged wildly and nearly collided with some rocks, but then the Trashman told me about the J-stroke and soon I was getting the hang of it. We weaved our way to the north end of String Lake. Here a 200 yard portage is necessary. This actually adds a bit more character to the approach and is over quickly. At the other end is the beautiful Leigh Lake. No roads reach this lake and it can only be enjoyed via hiking or canoeing. We took time out here to be the pirates of Leigh Lake. After terrorizing old ladies and kidnapping little children, we grew hungry and ate lunch sprawled across the canoe.

We had no trouble locating the landing spot at the western end of a cove. We even spotted another canoe pulled up into the reeds, but we never saw the paddlers. Bushwhacking up Leigh Canyon was the only unpleasant part of the entire trip. We lost the faint footpath early on and difficulties skyrocketed. We were bolstered by the fact that we only had to go about a mile. It took us about an hour and a half to travel that distance.

Our campsite was accessed via a complex series of five interconnected logs that crossed Leigh Creek to a nice flat section nestled amongst hundred foot trees. The logs ranged from five foot diameter behemoths to a long section only a foot wide. Each morning the Trashman would fall off this log. Trashmen don't get their balance until after brunch. I wonder why Richard Rossiter published a guidebook with topos of the Direct South Buttress and the rappel descent route when it is clear that he has never been within a country mile of each... Curious. But only curious, for real mountaineers like the Trashman and I have little need for a limp wristed, lycra clad guidebook author.

We left camp at 5 a.m. by headlamp. We had scoped out the bushwhacking section the night before so that we could follow it in the dark. We scrambled up the streambed of the Laughing Lion Falls and then up the interminable "First Ramp" and around the corner to start of the route.

The first two pitches up to the "Second Ramp" were supposed to be 4th class but they are more like 5.6. We simul-climbed these pitches and the Trashman was leading the third pitch by 7:30 a.m. This third pitch was deceptive, challenging, and tricky to protect. It goes up and right across slanting ramps. The next pitch is about 190 feet long as it traverses back to the left along a break in the wall. The climbing is relatively easy, maybe 5.6, but the exposure increases quickly. The Trashman led a steep 5.8 pitch to a stance. From Here we could go either off to the left at 5.7 or straight up at 5.9. Both directions looked very indistinct. The original route went straight up and involved some aid. Apparently it went free at 5.9 now. I wanted to do the classic route and headed straight up. This would prove to be a big mistake.

I worked straight above the belay on vertical rock, trying to find the line of least resistance. A hundred feet out I found a thin finger crack splitting a white wall. There was some fixed gear here and more above at a menacing roof. The fixed gear gave me some assurance that I was on route and it lured me upwards. The finger crack was desperate. I didn't fall off, but felt it was solid 5.10. Now I was faced with trying to pull the roof, but it looked much more difficult up close. After a few exploratory tries, I concluded it wouldn't go. There wasn't any protection possibilities so even aiding was out of the question. I whined down to the Trashman about the bleak situation. I was worried. I was too far out to lower off and in trouble.

A bail sling off to my left caught my eye and I made dicey, unprotected traverse toward it around the prow. I wondered if I was just making things worse for me. A fall now would have serious consequences. I thought about how far off the ground we were. I thought about how far away from any other person we were; how far away from a road, or even a decent trail we were. This was not the place to get injured. Around the corner I clipped into the sling that was just knotted into a crack. The climbing above was extreme, at least 5.11, but it didn't look like it lasted long. I struggled to place a couple of marginal stoppers and then debated long and hard about continuing upwards. I was in deep now, but things could get even worse. After much soul searching that I am sured tried the patience of the Trashman, I stepped into a sling clipped to the stoppers and cringed at the fall I would take if they pulled. My breathing was shallow to reduce any unnecessary body movement. The stoppers held and I was able to reach some good holds and continue upwards. I placed more gear and started feeling safe again. At the end of my rope, I set up a belay. I was still shaken with the stress of the pitch, but thankfully to be done with it one way or the other. It looked like the route would go above me, but that was now the Trashman's problem.

While following the Trashman confirmed the extreme nature of the pitch. He now understood what took so long. He also freed the 5.10 crack, but didn't even try the section I aided. The Trashman led the next 5.7 pitch which is directly above my belay ledge and very steep. At one point the Trashman calls out, with the same urgency as if he had just noticed a mildly interesting cloud formation, "rock." I looked up not expecting to see the bowling ball sized projectile speeding towards me. It missed, obviously, but I felt it was worth more of a "ROCK! Oh my god, Bill! ROCK!!" or something along those lines.

The Trashman finished this pitch up a classic 5.7 squeeze chimney to end on an extraordinary perch two feet wide below a bulging headwall. We took a short break here to cool my head and fill our stomachs. The exposure was incredible. It was two thousand feet down to level ground. I felt like I was on a big wall in Yosemite. The next pitch headed up an amazing flake to a small stance. We supposedly had only one pitch left before the famous Double Pendulum aid pitch, yet we could see no sign of it. The Trashman led around the corner and soon informed me that we were at the Double Pendulum pitch. His short, but tricky 5.9 pitch ended at a semi-hanging bolted belay. I immediately recognized the next pitch, once again from the photographs in "Fifty Classic Climbs." I quickly started the crux pitch. I didn't want to think about it too long. The exposure was tremendous. Aid climbing can be scary if you think about it too much. If the piece is fixed and you must use it, then I don't like to study it too much. I have to stand on it anyway so I don't want to know how dicey it looks. I first climbed a bit above the belay and clipped into my first pendulum point. The Trashman lowered me down and I pendulumed across the smooth slab to the next point and clipped in. From here it is more of a tension traverse than a pendulum and I had to free climb the last section into the corner.

I was now faced with the 5.12 overhanging, leaning, finger crack. Fortunately it also goes at A2. I could see a number of fixed pieces further up, but there was nothing down below. It looked hopeless because of the leaning nature of the crack, it narrow width and shallow depth. The piece that would work was a #0 Alien placed straight up into the crack. It torqued heavily, due to the lean of the crack, when I stepped on it. Once again, I didn't pause long, but I fully expected this piece to pop. If it had we would have been stopped with no way to continue without pitons. Fortunately, it held and the rest of the crack was airy, but routine. I belayed right on the prow so that I could watch and photograph the Trashman.

What remained was the "5.5" hand traverse which is closer to 5.8. This pitch is extremely photogenic and I shot numerous frames as the Trashman led out over space. Because of the traversing nature of this pitch, we didn't haul the pack and I was forced to wear it. The weight of the pack pulled mightly at my shoulders on this powerful traverse. We ended up on the far west end of a vast, granite bowl. Straight above us continued the South Buttress clear to the summit two thousand feet above. On the other side of the bowl was a shoulder with some small pine trees. This marked the start of our rappel route. I led across the bowl, dragging the rope behind me. After a rope length or two we unroped and hiked over to the trees. Here started the longest, must confusing rappel descent of my life. Two rappels brought us down to the top of the South Buttress Right. We did two more and then confusion. Each rappel seemed to involve coiling the ropes and then do some difficult and exposed scrambling to find the next rap anchor. The topo bears no resemblance to the current state of this descent. It took us four hours to descend. At one point the Trashman had to re-climb half of the rappel to retrieve a struck rope. Rappels like these are so stressful since if the rope gets stuck and you can't climb back up, you're trapped.

Upon reaching the ground we were met by a couple of other climbers who had packed all their bivy gear into the base of the first ramp. What a grunt that must have been. They were planning on doing the South Buttress Right route the next day and they pumped us for information about the descent.

Soon we were slowly descending. The climb had proven to be all we could handle. I didn't expect it to put up such a fight. This is a very committing route with a difficult descent. If bad weather hit you high on this route you would be in serious trouble. We arrived back at camp around 8 p.m. and scrounged for the last morsels of food. We had hoped to hike/paddle out today, but it was too late now. We hadn't planned food for a second night.

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