Taken from Webster's
1. An undertaking usually involving danger and unknown risks.
2. The encountering of risks.
3. An exciting or remarkable experience.
1. To expose to danger.
2. To venture upon.
3. To proceed despite risk.
4. To take the risk
Explaining the Unexplainable
It's inevitable that every climber finds themselves faced with a similar question...
"Why on Earth would you want
to do that?"
Everyone who has been asked something like this has a list of reasons to give their interrogator. Beautiful scenery, physical & mental challenge, brotherhood (or sisterhood) of the rope, etc... Having been asked this several times now I've started to feel that I have it down pat. That is until my last climb. It is very easy to spout off the textbook answers without actually thinking about it. These cookie-cutter responses are what most non-climbers understand. What is impossible to explain is the "fever" that climbing can give a person. The rituals before and after the big day can almost culminate to the same level of the climb itself. Researching a seldom visited place can lead to an obsession that only has one cure.
Anybody who has taken the time to drive up into the barren plains of northeastern Colorado knows how tedious it can be. Once the mountains have been left behind, the landscape opens up into what feels like eternal plains. Little do most people know, but the plains have many secrets to hide. One of the most challenging mountaineering goals hides in the lolling hills of NE Weld County.
The Pawnee Buttes are two sentinels made mostly of mud and capped by a layer of sandstone. Over the centuries, the stone cap has sheltered the mud below from the erosion that has lowered the ground all around them. The result is two stunning castles protected by sheer walls of horrible crumbling mud nearly 300 feet tall.
The Buttes in 1900. USGS Public Domain.
After stumbling upon a reference about climbing East Pawnee Butte, I quickly looked up the route. I remembered camping near the Buttes several years ago and that a single glance at their sheer walls was enough to squash any thought of climbing. I simply deemed any method of ascent impossible. Quite to the contrary and to my surprise, I discovered that the East Butte had a relatively simple route to the summit as long as you were willing to brave some short scrambling. The route was allegedly "discovered" around 1909 when the Sterling Fire Department chopped a series of steps up a short wall on the north side of the formation to gain access to the summit. Being a huge fan of scrambling, seldom visited summits, and closing circles, I quickly added it to my list. As I scanned through the photos available on the Internet, I was soon halted by an old grainy photo of some brave soul clawing their way up a sheer wall on West Pawnee Butte. Some research showed absolutely zero information on the West Butte, so I excitedly contacted the gentleman who had posted the photo to get any information.
Here is an abbreviated version of the email I received the next day ...
"Hey, Brian -
The photo that caught my attention. Credit to John Longnecker.Glad to have your email. I can attempt to help you with the West Butte, would like to see a photo or two of your success when it happens! First of
all, it has been 40 (yikes!!) years since I made my last ascent of the West Butte. (I’m 60 now, and still peakbagging.) ...
The photo shows us with Ken in the lead and myself below him on the face. Where I am standing at the top of the debris cone the angle steepens considerably. Here we spent a good deal of time chopping out foot holds with old army bayonets on our first ascent...March 68.
The footholds went up maybe 15 feet, or so and then the face goes pretty much vertical. Ken, in the lead, is seen in the photo on the vertical portion. As I previously stated, there were, at that time, a few old iron spikes pounded into the butte. Ken is amongst the pins at this point. We mere used them for aid - too stupid to know about belaying and such at that time. ...
The Nelson's (ranchowners) told us that we were something like the 6th or 7th party to make the ascent of the West Butte. ...
A friend and I toyed with attempting the route about 10 or 15 years ago armed with many years of experience mountaineering and rock climbing. This
never panned out for some reason, but the last time I was up there (maybe 5 years ago) I glassed the east face looking for the old pins and did not see them. ...
Let me know of your progress & plans. Good luck!
Getting Some Ideas
Credit to Paul Ross. Thanks for the idea!
Knowing that an ascent was possible, I dug deeper for any information I could find. It soon became apparent that I had found the only resource on climbing the West Butte. I assumed that a free ascent might be possible, but the main question became how to protect the climb on crumbly mud. I recalled seeing some photos of climbers near Grand Junction standing on top of the mud hoodoos on the slopes of Mount Garfield. I had read that they had used long garden stakes to literally nail in a vague network of safety. This seemed like a likely solution for protecting the West Butte. Unfortunately, this method would almost require an aid climb since it seemed unlikely these nails would hold much more than body weight. Not being a fan of nailing in gear, I still held onto the hope of a possible free ascent.
I contacted my friend Noah and bounced the idea off of him. Having the same affinity for unique climbs and rare summits as I do, I knew he would be interested immediately. The possibility of some potentially sketchy climbing seemed a fair price to pay for being the first humans on West Pawnee Butte in over 40 years (and possibly the first winter ascentionists). We set a date and gathered our gear. Noah brought a small assortment of iron, aid gear, and ice gear, while I brought a dozen nails, a 4 pound hammer, rock gear, and an old Army ammo can to leave for a summit register. As we sorted through our eclectic rack in the Loveland Park-N-Ride, we hoped that something we had would help us get up safely (while leaving the smallest "footprint" possible).
A Century of Erosion aka Biting Nails on West Pawnee Butte
As we drove toward the plains, we pondered what condition the climb would be in. The original photo showed some texture on the wall that seemed strong enough to support the climber's weight, and we hoped to find that minimal erosion had occurred over the years. As the mountains receded into nothing in my rear-view mirror, the grasslands opened up before us. The further we drove, the more isolated we felt. The winds tore across the plains, causing the road to ice-over in areas where there was nothing to block its path, and the seemingly endless line of semi-trucks driving in the opposite direction continued to jar my car as they cruised by.
<---------------------------- Dry . . . . . . . . . . to . . . . . . . . . . Ice ------------------------------>
On the approach. Boo!
We soon slid onto the maze of dirt roads that lead out to the Buttes. Noah kept asking, "There's something out here?" as the flats rolled on and on. Getting turned around only once, we soon pulled off the road with the Buttes directly in sight, shouldered our packs and were off. As we made a straight line for the West Butte, we were unpleasantly surprised to find that we were postholing through a crust of ankle deep snow.
Talking and laughing across the flats, our conversation dimmed as the West Butte got larger. Ours eyes traced up and down the sheer walls, and the closer we became, the more absurd an ascent seemed. Crossing the main trail, we began scanning for the route shown in the original photos. Passing underneath the immense east wall, we followed the flank up and around to the north as Noah said "There it is!". Sure enough, the cone steepened toward the shortest part of the vertical band, and sticking out of the crust was a precarious line of ancient pins/bars.
|The line. |
|Looking towards the East Butte from the base of the climbing.
As I scrambled as high as I could to look at the gear, Noah quickly piped up "I'll lead!" Looking up at the hundred-year-old gear and very faint chopped steps, I wasn't going to argue. Reaching out and touching the base of the cone, Noah immediately sent a large chunk of mud tumbling down. The mud literally crumbled under the slightest touch. We both gave each other a look and started racking up. Buried under a large amount of gear, I'm sure we looked like fish out of water.
|The face says it all. |
|Worst "rock" ever!
|Ready, set, GO!
Cracking a smile, Noah set off up the cone. He carefully followed the faint "steps" up toward the wall. Our conversation came to a quick halt as Noah reached the base of the vertical stretch. As he climbed, a shower of mud and rock came down on me, and it was clear that not a single hold could be trusted. Not wanting to send a larger chunk down, Noah opted not to grab the flake below the wall. The first piece of "gear" was an ancient piece of re-bar, and to reach it, he had to either yard on the flake or place another piece. Balancing precariously, he carefully removed the first nail from his jacket and began gently tapping it into the mud. Once it was in enough to be trusted, he tied off the nail, clipped his aiders to it, and stepped up just enough to reach the re-bar. A quick test showed the bar wobbled to the touch, but it seemed solid enough to hold body weight. Another tie-off and aid move up, he reached the next piece: an old rusted ring piton that had eroded several inches out and sloped downwards. It was so badly eroded that it probably could have been pulled out by hand. Not trusting it, Noah top-stepped and stretched just high enough to reach the next piton. Thankfully it was in better shape and was probably the best of the originals. What seemed like a breath-holding eternity later, Noah was standing on a small ledge just below the the larger alcove. The final piton was so badly eroded it was probably only 1-2 inches into the mud and was literally rusted in half. With no alternative, Noah performed an awkward mantel up (we guessed 5.6) followed by a tenuous traverse left on tiny mud horns to a better stance. Exhilarated to be above the rotten and dangerous pitch, we both breathed a sigh of relief. Now how to bring me up? Sitting below, I could hear Noah working on something, then finally I heard "Off belay". He leaned over the edge and informed me that he was not envious of my position and that I better not fall due to the anchor. It was not quite the news I wanted to hear, but it would have to do. After struggling my way up the smooth, slightly overhanging wall, I appreciated Noah's lead. Every piece was horrifying, and the final mantel/traverse was sketchy. Any fall would have delivered us straight to the ground. After checking out the anchor Noah had built, we both congratulated each other.
|Starting the lead. |
|Just below the mantel.
|Me starting up. |
|First bar. |
|Second piton. Best one. |
|The belay anchor.
Glad to be above the worst difficulties, we un-roped and carefully traversed up through another small cliff band. Although technically much easier (5.0), the terrain was steep, loose, and poised above a large cliff. We climbed up, found the weakness in the summit cap of sandstone (that made the whole tower possible), and soon congratulated each other again on the summit. The summit was quite large, and there was not a single sign of any previous ascents. After snapping many pictures, we built a small cairn, signed and placed the register, and soaked in the view.
|Scrambling below the summit. Still smiling! |
|Noah on the summit |
|East Pawnee Butte from the West Butte
After thoroughly enjoying the summit, we started to work our way down. We found an easier path off the summit cap and very carefully downclimbed to the belay station. After a brief discussion about how to rappel, we chose to use 3 old iron bars that had previously been pounded into the ground as our main anchor with our nails as a backup. The plan was for Noah to rappel first, then if I felt the bars would hold, I would clean the back-up and then trust the bars alone. As Noah slowly lowered off the edge, I watched as the bars flexed under his weight. As he called "Off rappel!", I looked again at our back-up. After a short conversation with myself, I cleaned the back-up, threaded the rope through my ATC, and weighted the anchor. Watching the bars flex under my own weight, I thought to myself "It's a double bolt anchor, double bolt anchor..." as I rappelled quickly, trying not to shock-load the anchor.
|Rappel anchor. |
|"Double bolt anchor..."
As soon as I touched down, we packed the gear and congratulated each other for the third time. We both agreed that this had been the sketchiest climb/rappel we had ever done (and something that we would not soon repeat). After snapping a photo we tromped off towards the East Butte.
Back on the ground
Closing the Circle
Going for the East
Climbing up the steps.
As the sun lowered more in the sky, we closed in on the East Butte. Coming up against the face, I dropped my pack and we began jogging around. We shortly found the "steps" carved up the side and dusted out the snow while climbing up. Soon, we found ourselves watching the evening sun over the West Butte. Contemplating our improbable ascent route up the West Butte, we snapped many photos and enjoyed our position before reluctantly heading back down.
|Looking east off the East Butte. |
|Me on the East Butte.
|Noah on the East Butte. West on the background. |
|Our route on the West Butte.
|Back down. |
|All in a day's work.
In Defense of Adventure
As we post-holed back towards the car, we had some time to reflect what we had done. We had completed the route and were most likely the first people to ever climb both Buttes in a day, let alone in winter. It had been 40 years since anybody had graced the West Butte's summit and it will probably be a long time before it sees another ascent. The easiest route to the top of the West Butte is dangerous and probably one of the most difficult summits to reach in Colorado. I knew that when I got home and told my friends and family what I had done, they would probably label us as insane.
|Sunset on the West Butte. |
|Noah and the East Butte.
|Glancing back at the West Butte. |
|Car in Nowhere, CO.
|The sun held the Buttes till the last light.
"Why on Earth would you want
to do that?"
I was ready for it with a one word answer..."Adventure".