It's all fine until it's not
We were both thinking it, but Beth said it first: “We should probably conserve heat.” What she meant was “It’s time to spoon.” Now that we had stopped with the labor of constantly pulling and coiling ropes and our exhaustive search in the darkness for the rappel station was unsuccessfully complete, the cold was creeping through the single-layer nylon rain jacket and pants that constituted my only insulation. Beth was perhaps a little better off, not to mention smarter, for the long-sleeve shirt she had on under her jacket. Despite the spaciousness of the sloping, grassy ledge we were occupying, there was not a single flat space big enough for a person to lie on. Finding the best spot we could, we put down our small backpacks and our two ropes as bedding to keep us off the heat-sapping earth. I managed to doze a little, but, even huddled together as we were, the cold forced us to get up every so often and walk up and down the slope of the ledge to try to warm up. At one point in the middle of this very long night, it started to rain, forcing us to seek shelter under a small overhang that was a short scramble up from the ledge. Luckily, cold as we were, it didn’t seem to get as cold as it certainly could at that altitude.
Of course, the idea was never to spend the night on the mountain, but I have yet to undertake a single long climb that has gone exactly according to plan. This one was no different. The day before, Beth and I had, after a late-afternoon canoe approach across Leigh Lake in Grand Teton National Park, bushwhacked up the trail-less Leigh Canyon to camp as close to the base of the climb on Mount Moran’s South Buttress as we could get to ensure an early start on the ascent. In the pre-dawn of the following morning, the scramble to the start of the technical climbing had taken a bit longer than anticipated, but it was the middle section of the route that proved to be the most time consuming. As usual on long alpine rock climbs, route-finding was the crux and this is where we ran into problems. Viewed from the ground and in written descriptions, the route seemed pretty straight forward and full of notable and easily identified features. Once on the middle section of the buttress, however, it became a choose-your-own-adventure of chimneys, cracks, and ramp systems. My wandering uncertainty on these middle pitches cost us several hours.
Eating a bagel on the South Buttress
That said, the climbing had been fun and the weather beautiful. As high up on the wall as we were, we felt even higher because the entire valley of Jackson Hole below was completely obscured by smoke from several large forest fires to the north and east, making it seem as if we were climbing above the clouds. As much as I enjoy climbing, though, there is always a point near the end of a long climb where fun no longer seems an apt description of the undertaking. It’s not that I didn’t want to be there anymore, as I stood pondering my next move on the far side of the infamous double-pendulum pitch. No, the pure joy of adventure and problem solving was still with me, but now my determined effort more closely resembled business than fun. My thoughts were focused not only on the climbing, but on my diminishing water supply, the rapidly increasing numbers on my digital watch, and the sun’s imperceptible but all-too-quick advance on the horizon.
In crossing the double-pendulum, Beth had belayed me up and to the right to a fixed anchor at the top of a blank section of rock that needed to be traversed. After clipping one of our double ropes to the anchor, Beth lowered me down onto the featureless expanse of granite hanging in space above the canyon floor far below. Stopping when I judged I was at the correct level on the blank wall, I began kicking back and forth, gaining momentum with each swing as my arc across the rock grew ever wider. Finally, after several sprints across the wall I was able to lunge and grab another sling that was affixed in the middle of the face. Clipping the rope through this anchor as I did the first, I began the lowering-swinging process again until I reached the far side of the hanging plane of smooth granite, where it was time to put my limited knowledge of aid climbing to use.
When I say limited, I mean I’ve read a book on aid climbing and practiced a couple of times on some roof cracks back home in the deep south. What I found following the second pendulum was a very thin overhanging crack extending up and to the right from the six-inch ledge I was standing on and featuring two sketchy-looking pitons, the first of which was far out of reach from my stance. With my belayer actually located well above me and to the left, I managed to stretch up and to the right and place a small wired stopper in an irregularity in the crack. To this I attached a double-length sling. The placement looked dubious, at best. The stopper was barely supported in the crack and actually swiveled back and forth horizontally as I gracelessly stepped out to my right and up and into the sling. After committing to the process and putting all of my weight on the piece, I tried to remain as motionless as possible despite my trembling right quadriceps, staring down the little aluminum nut and willing it not to pop.
Now I could reach the piton and clipped another sling to it along with my harness, allowing me to rest and give my right leg and right bicep, which had both been doing all the work, a rest. My mind, however, got no rest at all as I worried about the quality of the pin I was then hanging from. I’m sure that piton has been stuck there for years and hasn’t budged through the use of hundreds of climbers, but reasoning like that doesn’t ever seem to help calm the nerves in such situations. Everything has a life span, after all, iron pitons and myself included.
After advancing to the next pin, I was presented with another nut placement that would allow me to reach a fixed wire that seemed to be the final stop before reaching easier ground. A larger, vertically oriented placement that seemed bomber compared to that last thin, shaky placement, it would allow me to step directly up to reach the fixed wire. As I made the move upward with all of my weight on the single stopper, my movement caused it to walk back from its placement and tip completely out of the rock. Just as I had straightened my leg and was stretching to clip the wire, I saw the stopper hanging there, tipped out with one corner on the edge of the rock, as if one molecule of aluminum and one molecule of granite were tenaciously clinging to each other. It was the kind of moment of intense and sudden fear that causes you to tense up and try to hurry to escape the danger. There was no choice, however, but to continue carefully with the task at hand, clipping the fixed wire with a quickdraw (I was conserving slings) and clipping the rope through it so I could pull up and away from my predicament. Those two molecules were somehow determined not to release their bond, though, and the stopper stayed put.
After a few more moves, I was through the pitch and set a belay for Beth to follow. Having learned on the fly how to execute a double-pendulum and hard aid on lead, Beth and I now had to figure out how to have her follow it. It didn’t turn out to be too difficult, only requiring some extra focus on rope-management, and Beth didn’t seem to have too much trouble muscling through the aid. After an easy rope-length traverse, we were done with the climbing, but only halfway home. We still had ten or eleven rappels to get us down and only about an hour and a half of daylight. It was by then a certainty that darkness would find us out on this mountain instead of drinking hot chocolate in our campsite.
It took us a while to locate the slings for the first rappel, a theme that would continue. We managed a couple of full-rope rappels before the sun gave it up for the day and we were thankful that we were on our way down instead of still on the climb. It was difficult finding the rap stations on the broad ledges that populate this part of the buttress, but at least once you start down a pitch you can only follow gravity. This became especially true after dark when all we could see to lead the way was the rope by headlamp disappearing into blackness. We managed a few more rappels in the dark, always having to search all over a particular ledge before we could find the station. After about five raps total, we found ourselves on that wide, sloping, grassy ledge with no rappel slings in sight. We climbed all over the place looking for the slings: up above the ledge, way down below to where it dropped off into the night, down a gully to another ledge. No slings. When we had looked everywhere, we looked everywhere again. Nothing. Crap.
Eventually, at around 10:30 or 11, I looked at Beth and said, “I guess we’re spending the night here.” This decision was a last resort of course, but we both reasoned that it would be far more dangerous to keep looking and risking a slip in the dark than to wait for light when surely we would be able to get ourselves back on the rappel route. That seemed like the prudent thing to do, but it also meant we were going to spend an unprotected night on a ledge. I had already been rationing my water for hours and was down to just one swallow, which I would now use little by little just to keep my mouth from gluing itself shut. I had left the ground with two liters 16 hours before and was surprised it lasted this long. Beth had about a half-liter left, always the efficient consumer.
Home for the night
Even more worrisome for me was a decision I had made on the approach to the climb in the morning. For some unfathomable reason, I had decided to stash my fleece sweater and gloves under a boulder to save a few ounces on the climb. This is something I had never done before and will never do again. I am usually the one in the group who, like the boy scout I never was, is over-prepared. Not this time. So there we were, stranded about a thousand feet above our campsite in the Tetons, at night, no dinner, almost out of water, under-clothed and feeling very, very humbled.
When the first light of morning found us still sitting and shivering under that cramped overhang that sheltered us from the weather, only two things had changed from the night before: it was light and it was raining. We still had to find a way off the mountain. Still going on a hunch that I had unsuccessfully followed the night before, I down-climbed the now-slippery gully once again and hunted for some slings on the ledge below. Retracing the same steps I had already taken, I found a set of slings just below the south side of this lower ledge. I had looked right at them in the darkness of the previous night, but my small headlamp beam wasn’t strong enough to illuminate them from where I stood.
The remaining rappels were wet, but pretty straight forward, and we reached camp by 11:00 a.m., almost 30 hours after we had departed. The rain having stopped just after we hit the ground on the final rappel, we proceeded to fix the dinner we had missed the night before and spent several hours laying around in the warm sunshine before packing up and heading back out to the lake, where we finished our trip across with a nice hail/thunderstorm that hit us just as we were going ashore. It was a parting shot from mother nature that seemed to remind us, just in case we still needed reminding, that, as always, she was in control and we were guests, only visiting by her leave. The rain only lasted a few minutes, though, and we hiked the last mile out to the parking lot, feeling that intoxicating mixture of extreme fatigue and pride at having accomplished a goal and endured an adventure few people will ever experience.
Finally back at camp in Leigh Canyon, Grand Teton National Park
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