"Where some [Disappointment Peak] routes have fallen into obscurity, a few routes have withstood the test of time and now are considered classics. Of them all, a solitary line stands out and has gained a wide reputation as one fo the best rock climbs in the Tetons. Long before most climbers make their first journey to these mountains, they are aware of a route called Irene's Arete." - Richard Rossiter, "Teton Classics"
At the Caves, Scott and I geared up to do Irene's Arete (5.10a, 6 pitches). We gave Daryl the option of joining us or hiking to the Lower Saddle to acclimatize for the next day's attempt on the Direct Exum; he understandably opted for the former. We knew the going would be slower with a party of three, but figured we could still knock off six pitches in a reasonable time. Up until then, there had been no afternoon thunderstorm activity all week, save for the incredibly brief rain and distant thunder on Saturday's climb of The Snaz.
So we scrambled up the exposed 4th class rock to the start of the route, where I geared up and led the 5.7 first pitch around the arete and up the right side. From the quality of the rock, I knew right away that this was going to be another stellar Teton rock climb. Scott led the 5.8 second pitch, a handcrack, which he found easy and I found difficult, he being used to Tennessee Wall cracks, me being used to horizontal Gunks incuts! The third pitch, an exceptional 5.7 pitch, fell to Daryl, and he led it in fine style. We were making pretty good time, but became concerned about some building clouds behind us. However, no real ugly signs presenting themselves, we continued on, me leading the incredible 5.8 fourth pitch that starts with "strenuous moves left and up past a fixed pin." Overly concerned with the guidebook's "strenuous" reference, I protected the hell out of the first four feet, only to find the move just moderately strenuous. I quickly moved up on beautiful, easy rock, running it out to the black roof. Once there, I had trouble determining where exactly to "pull through the middle of the roof," but finally decided that doing so right on the point of the arete looked fun. After pro-ing it up good, I pulled through, looking for the elusive "two-inch white crystal" that was supposed to demarcate the unprotected 5.7 climbing on the left from the protected 5.7 climbing on the right. Looking right, I could see chalk above the roof where I was apparently supposed to have pulled it, so I made a tenuous, poorly protected 12 or so foot traverse to the right, wanting for all the world to avoid thirty feet or more of unprotected 5.7 climbing. I located the white crystal, using it as a foothold to make my move into the crack right above it, where I found myself in uncomfortable (for me) hand jamming territory. It took all I had to clip an old piton before moving up, and I felt compelled to grab the slung piton in order to place a cam above it. Oh well, no onsight, but I really didn't care, as a look over my shoulder revealed that time was quickly becoming of the essence. Because of the traverse, I fought rope drag to the top of the pitch, which deposited me at the base of the 5.9 dihedral variation pitch, where not a minute later it started to rain. I brought the others up as quickly as I could, and by the time they arrived, the storm was rushing headlong in our direction, thunder and lightning in the distance marking our time. Scott grabbed all the gear readily rackable, leaving behind much of it, and attacked the dihedral, still free-climbing despite the urgency, and making short work of the pitch. Once out of sight, the real shit began. The wind blew the rain upward at Daryl and I on the exposed belay ledge, and the dark clouds enveloped us as the rain increased in intensity, punctuated by loud claps of thunder and lightning. I thought our goose was cooked, but we counseled each other to remain calm, that panic would only hurt us, and that whatever was to happen would happen whether we freaked or not. Though not what anyone would call a deeply religious person, I lost myself in prayer, the repetition and rhythm of the Lord's Prayer and Hail Marys soothing and helping to calm my frayed nerves. At one point, Daryl snapped me out of my trance to help him untangle the ropes, which he was now rapidly feeding to Scott. Once at the end of the rope, communication with Scott became impossible, and I started off several times, only to climb back down to the belay because the rope was not being taken up. Finally, I yanked myself up on the first two pieces of pro, thinking only of moving as fast as humanly possible, and the slack was taken out. I pulled on gear through the dihedral section, then began free-climbing as fast as I could, monkeying hand-over-hand on the easier 5.7 hand traverse until I gained the ridge. Scott had wisely traversed the ridge by staying about 10 feet below the ridge on the right side, so as not to be the highest point on the ridge, and I did the same, completely out of breath when I reached the belay, which was sheltered to a reasonable degree from the weather. Daryl followed quickly, and we sat beneath the big block that stands before the 5.10a last pitch for an hour or so, waiting for the weather to let up.
In due time, it did. Peering through the slot separating the large block from the 5.10a face, we could see clear weather taking over. Still recognizing the urgency of getting off the peak, we figured that the most direct route -- the 5.10a finish -- was preferable than the easier (5.7, 5.8) finishes. It was a fantastic pitch, and Scott led it in good style. I was bewildered by the exposure when I stemmed up the gap to the undercling moves. What a wild finish! But I had little time to reflect on it, because no sooner was I through the crux, when even worse weather rolled in as quickly as the last had exited. The race was on again, and I sprinted for the belay. By the time Darryl arrived, it was full-on again. Scott set off on the class 4 rock below the ridgecrest, placing scant pro on the way. I tied in short and moved as fast as my hands and legs would allow; Darryl did the same. Scott found shelter in an alcove formed by a huge detached block, that allowed us to more or less stay out of the rain, though we were forced to crowd ourselves on top of each other in the far corner. The electrical strikes increased noticeably, and we nervously removed all the protection from our harnesses, hanging it off some gear placed in a horizontal crack above us. The rain pounded and the lightning streaked above nearby peaks. Several thunderclaps exploded directly above our heads, and the looks on our faces said all that needed saying. I recalled a line from my favorite T.S. Eliot poem: "I have seen the eternal footman hold my coat and snicker. And in short, I was afraid." After what seemed like an eternity, and with the last of the cloud-muffled daylight fading, the worst of the lightning seemed to have passed, though the rain continued unabated.
A break in the lightning prompted us to attempt a retreat, as we didn't relish spending the night on Disappointment Peak. Ignoring the guidebook instructions to pass up the first gully in favor of descending the second, we chose the expedience of rapping into the first. A rap station enticed us, and we rapped in. The first of our rapping difficulties presented itself when we tried to pull the ropes. They wouldn't budge. I climbed up, still on rappel, to a position above us, hoping to free the stuck ropes, but to no avail. Scott then climbed up to my position, mule-hitched one end of the rope through my belay device, and began laboriously inch-worming up the ropes on my Petzl Tiblocs. He reached the rappel station, freed the snag, then rapped down to an intermediate station above me and rigged a new rappel into the gully. We could hear large rocks being dislodged by Scott below us as he rapped into the darkness. At this point, Darryl was some 50 feet below me, daiseyed into a rap station, while I was hitched to a gear anchor I built below Scott's intermediate rap point. Scott's rappel path left the rope well out of mine or Darryl's reach. I attached first a #1 Camalot, then a #2 Camalot, and finally, after many failed attempts, added a #3 Camalot to the 18-foot cordalette with which I was trying to lasso the rap ropes. I finally hooked them and reeled them in, then rapped to Darryl below, where we rigged a rescue rappel, with him daiseyed to my harness, suspended below me. We skipped and skidded our way down the treacherously loose gully, knocking large rocks down in Scott's direction. He had, as we had hoped, sought shelter from the anticipated rockfall. Once again, the ropes stuck, and once again Scott, being the man among men, hauled himself back up to free the ropes. Pulling wet ropes of unequal diameter took every ounce of strength we had. Some eight or more rappels later, we finally reached the main Garnet Canyon approach trail well below the Irene's buttress. Visibility was severely limited, even with headlamps, in the driving rain and howling winds. We struggled up in the direction of the Caves, not even completely sure that we were actually on the right trail, because nothing looked remotely familiar in the dim, rain-soaked fuzz of our headlamps. But we continued on, and were ecstatic to find the Caves, and our concerned friends, at just past 2:00 a.m., after a nearly 16-hour ordeal. Amazingly, our cave had remained kitty-litter dry in the torrent, thanks to the prevailing wind gusts, which were blowing the storm over the Lower Saddle, down Garnet Canyon and right over the protected backside of our cave. After some hot food and drink, we drifted into coma-like sleep, until nearly 10 o'clock the next morning.