There were several options on the 1st Buttress that were theoretically within our ability. The buttress is split in the middle by a large ledge with a class-4 walk-off. Up above the ledge there was a 5.5 route, a 5.6 route, and a couple of 5.7 routes. However, besides the class-4 gully, the easiest way to get to the upper part of the buttress was via a 5.7 route called Great Dihedral. The Great Dihedral intrigued us, but since it would be the hardest alpine route either of us had tried I was a bit apprehensive. The photos on mountainproject.com looked both exciting and intimidating at the same time. We put off the decision until the morning of the climb and agreed to meet at Bear Lake Trailhead at 4:30.
When I got to the trailhead there were several other parties gearing up for their alpine starts. One of them wandered over and asked us what we were going to attempt. The other two parties were heading to Notchtop and this fellow wanted to make sure we weren't going to be getting in each other's way. (I would find out later that one of the parties was Ariel and wife.) We told him we were headed for Hallett so there were no worries (I still hadn't quite made up my mind to commit to the Great Dihedral).
The approach hike seemed longer than I had remembered it from Dragon's Tail Couloir but we made really swift progress and we were at the base of Great Dihedral by 6:00. We had just kind of wandered up to the base of the climb without really committing to it, but since we were here we finally committed to the Great Dihedral. I was both excited and scared, confident yet apprehensive. Lately I'd been a little disappointed with myself because I didn't feel like I was really getting any better. That would certainly change today - I would either graduate from a 5.6 climber to a 5.7 climber or die trying! (Well, hopefully not die... maybe just get bruised and battered.)
It was still pretty early to get started and the sun was just coming up so we bundled up and had some breakfast while we waited for the Tyndall Gorge to lighten up a little and the temps to warm. We chatted a bit and admired the soaring 2nd Buttress and Hallett's Chimney. If our skills progressed as we hoped we might be back in the spring to attempt Hallett's Chimney as a mixed climb. Perhaps someday in the distant future we'd be back to attempt the ultra-classic Culp-Bossier Route on the 2nd Buttress.
Eventually the skies had lightened enough for us to get started. There were quite a few clouds in the sky at the moment and that was bit worrisome, especially because this early in the morning it was a little difficult to tell just how massive the cloud buildup was and what the nature of the clouds was like. We decided that though bothersome, we could get away with starting up the Great Dihedral because if the weather turned we could bail after three pitches and retreat down the class-4 walk-off.
Fabio racked up and led off up the first pitch. The first pitch started off with a nice right-facing dihedral for 20' or so up to a roof and then Fabio traversed left around the roof. After that he made it up some run-out face climbing before traversing farther left into another right-facing dihedral. Fabio climbed another 30-40' up this dihedral before gaining a nice belay ledge below the classic section of the Great Dihedral. I followed fairly easily and arrived at the belay station amped to lead the crux pitch.
We swapped gear as I gazed up at the perfect dihedral that lay before me. It rose at least 50' straight up and there was a crack at the back of the dihedral and another intermittent one on the left side of the dihedral. From below I wasn't quite sure how I would climb it: Would I jam the crack at the back of the corner? Would I lieback off the intermittent crack on the left? Would I face climb up one side or the other? Would I stem all the way up it? There was no way to tell from below and there was only one way to find out! I took a deep breath and set off on my first 5.7 lead ever.
As I made my way up the dihedral it became obvious which strategy was going to work best for me - stemming all the way. I made it up a few feet and put a cam into the crack at the back of the dihedral. I felt better with a directional piece in and continued up. At first the moves were a bit awkward but after another ten feet I think I was getting the hang of it and was feeling more comfortable. I put another piece of pro into the intermittent crack on the left and continued onward.
By this point I was feeling downright comfortable and was really enjoying the stemming moves. Both sides of the dihedral were featured enough to provide nice ledges for footholds and good smears and the two cracks ate pro. I felt like I was cruising up the dihedral, placing pro whenever I needed a shot of courage. I was literally "in the zone," and it felt awesome. Everything was coming together - the climbing was incredibly fun on splendid rock, I was placing pro fluidly and effortlessly, and I felt like I was climbing great. The climbing was difficult enough that I had to really concentrate and think carefully about every move, but at the same time the solution to every difficulty came to me quickly. I passed through a bulge and then continued up more perfect dihedral to another slightly overhanging bulge in the dihedral. By this time I was running short on pro and I searched the rack hard for something that would protect the difficult-looking bulge ahead of me. I tried a couple of stoppers without success before spying the trusty red Alien hanging from my harness. This fit perfectly into the crack at the back of the dihedral! With this much needed shot of courage I fired up and over the bulge to easier terrain.
I had taken out less than half the rope and had gone not more than 100' above the belay. However, I'd been placing pro every 10' or so, and with the pro in the anchor below, and the pro I would need to build the anchor at the top of the pitch, I was running pretty short of gear. I wandered around looking for a good place to bring Fabio up. I finally found a nice grassy ledge with a fixed piton nearby. I clipped into the piton and put our #4 C4 into a crack and brought Fabio up. When he got up to the belay he had a huge smile on his face. We both agreed that this pitch had been the nicest we'd climbed all season!
We swapped gear and Fabio started up our third pitch. The first bit looked a little loose, but it turned out the chockstones in chimney-like thing I'd setup below were fairly well fixed. After the chimney-like section Fabio traversed back left into the dihedral proper and passed the slings described by Rossiter. He continued up the dihedral but this upper section wasn't quite as nice as our second pitch. It was a bit broken and there was quite a bit of moss and other vegetation. It was still fun and soon Fabio topped out of the dihedral and his line went out of sight. He traversed a bit to the left and then scrambled up some easier slabby stuff (though a bit run-out) to the giant ledge that divided the 1st Buttress in half. This pitch took out nearly all of the 70m rope and I don't think we could have done it with a 60m rope.
While Fabio had been leading the third pitch there had been a few intermittent sprinkles. I gazed up into the sky trying to predict what would happen but it was difficult to tell. The sky was a uniform light gray and the clouds seemed to be moving from south to north. This was bad for us as we had the 1st Buttress towering above us to the south and couldn't see what was headed our way. I was already thinking that we might have to bail on the second half of our climb as I started out up the third pitch. This pitch wasn't quite as fun as the previous one but it was still pretty cool. I made short work of it and soon I was up on the big ledge with Fabio.
We both agreed that the weather was looking pretty sketchy. Some more sprinkles had fallen while I'd been following the third pitch and although it wasn't raining at the moment the air felt like the clouds could open up at any time. If we continued on we still had at least two pitches of 5.5 climbing to top out on the 1st Buttress and then we'd be on top of an exposed ridge line with a series of rappels between us and the descent gully. We were both extremely content with what we'd done so far so we agreed to call it a day and bail out down the class-4 descent gully.
The class-4 gully was a non-trivial downclimb and very loose in places. It took a bit of careful route finding to get down to the talus slope. At one point we were pretty close to breaking out the rope and rappelling a section. However, we eventually found our way down and soon we were back to the base of the climb. This time it was light enough to see the route and we were able to snap a few photos of the entirety of the dihedral. After that we made our way down the moraine to encounter the hordes at Emerald Lake.
The trail was a zoo on the way back to the trailhead but we were eventually able to work our way though the crowds and arrived back at the car before noon. Although it would have been nice to have finished the upper half of the 1st Buttress and top out Fabio and I both felt really pleased with what we'd done: we enjoyed the best pitch of the season, and we had overwhelming success on the hardest route we'd tackled all season. We could now call ourselves 5.7 climbers! Another benefit to calling the day short was we avoided another 12+ hour day and I felt really fresh instead of the usual total exhaustion that follows our typical death marches. We gazed up toward the high peaks and observed that their summits were all cloaked in clouds. The valleys seemed to be filling with mist (or maybe light rain) so we could feel good about our decision to retreat. We packed up our gear and headed to Ed's Cantina to celebrate another fine day in the mountains!