Mount Moran, Direct South Buttress

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Trip Report
Wyoming, United States, North America
Date Climbed/Hiked:
Jul 20, 2003
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73.06% Score
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Created On: Apr 15, 2005
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This is an excerpt from my longer TR titled "Ten Days in the Teton Range" (the full TR, which includes The Snaz, Irene's Arete, and the Owen-Spalding (Wittich Cracks var.) can be found in the Climbing Trip Reports section on

"In every mountain range there are a few routes that, due to their length, position, quality, and history, are recognized as the great classic lines. The Direct South Buttress on Mount Moran is a route of such stature . . ." - Richard Rossiter, "Teton Classics"

Next morning, we stopped in town to rent a canoe (slightly cheaper than Dornan's), and set out for the String Lake boat launch. We paddled across the vodka-clear, shallow waters of String Lake to the 300-yard overland portage to Leigh Lake. The shores of Leigh Lake, in stark contrast to String Lake, dropped precipitously into darkness, indicating significant depths. We carefully paddled our way to the north shore, wary of overturning our canoe and losing all our gear to the lake. Our campsite (Leigh Lake 14b), splendidly remote, sat just below the east face of Mt. Moran. We napped away the hotter hours of the day in the shade of surrounding trees, before venturing out to explore the faint trail that leads to the DSB. Even in daylight, the overgrown trail proved difficult to follow. We spotted abundant signs of bear activity everywhere -- scat, paw prints, scratched tree bark. We hiked up Leigh Canyon to within sight of the first ramp below the soaring DSB ("It attacks directly from Leigh Canyon the very high-angle buttress forming the lower 1,500 feet of the south ridge." -Ortenberger & Jackson), calculating that it would take us another half hour or so to reach the start of the climb. On the way back to camp, we mapped out a detour around the area of greatest visible bear activity.

We slept fitfully amid the frequent sounds of nocturnal activity outside the tent, waking each other about every half hour with a subtle shake and a whispered "did you hear that?" At first light Monday morning, we began our approach. Our hope, nurtured by the guidebooks and at least one person we'd spoken to, was that we'd find a water source in the huge bowl that marks the end of the DSB proper, where we'd bivy, and continue on along the upper south ridge (5.4) to the summit the following day. On the other hand, the climbing Rangers at Jenny Lake had opined that we were crazy to be up on the DSB during the current heatwave and expressed their doubts that we'd find any water.

The hike up the first ramp to the base of the route was a lot longer and more arduous that it looked from the canyon. In all, the approach took us a little over two hours, an hour more than we had expected. I led the first and second pitch "fourth class" chimney, managing to pull 5.4 moves to avoid loose death blocks and placing protection frequently. There was a good amount of loose rock, and I knocked off a few toaster-sized blocks before I came to the end of the rope. Scott had started simul-climbing when I reached rope's end, but I was too wary of knocking any more rocks on him, so I stopped, built an anchor, and belayed him. Scott continued past the belay, eventually making some exciting leftward traverse moves to gain the second ramp just below the start of the third pitch. A little routefinding confusion ensued, and by the time we got a fix on our exact location, Scott was mid-way through the 5.9 variation to the third pitch, making committing moves on small gear before he got in a #1 Camalot. He gained the 5.4 "long ledge" and continued leftward for a rope length. At the belay, we debated our exact position, and guessed that the "steep, loose 5.8" corner was just around the arete ahead of us. At this point, I was still a little shaken by the loose rock and exposure in the chimney, and wasn't in the frame of mind to lead a "loose" 5.8 corner. So Scott assumed the lead. When I rounded the arete on the "long ledge," however, I looked to see Scott nearly a rope length away, perched below the obvious "steep, loose 5.8" corner. "Okay," I thought to myself, "it's time to step up." I scoped out the pro from the base - it looked fine. But what of the loose rock? The hell with it; I racked up and went right at it. Much to my delight, this was my native Gunks climbing at its finest! Steep, juggy, well-protected rock. I found nothing loose to speak of, and couldn't help wondering why the guidebook would implicitly steer people away from this pitch (there's an easy, roundabout 3rdclass alternative detailed on the topo). It was fantastic. Some strange, pinchy exit moves brought me to a broad platform below more steep climbing.

The next pitch, the sixth in the Ortenberger & Jackson guide, involved heading up left, then cutting back right on an ascending ramp, before making an "awkward downclimb" to a nice ledge. Awkward, indeed! The moves, though only 5.6, felt significantly harder due to the exposure forced upon you as you scanned longingly for footholds you couldn't see! Scott talked me through the foot placements while I held on tightly to marginal holds, inching my way to the belay. It was thrilling, but I was glad when it was over! I headed up next for the seventh pitch, which finishes through and atop a wide chimney formed by a detached flake. Near the top of the pitch, I had run out of runners (because of the climb's remoteness, I took advantage of nearly every good placement I encountered, not wanting to risk a fall of any significance). Wedged in to the chimney, I removed my backpack to retrieve Scott's web-o-lette, which I'd stuffed in my pack after cleaning the fourth pitch. I rigged it to a bomber #3.5 Camalot placement, then finished the remaining 15 feet or so of climbing, fighting horrendous rope drag. I struggled to pull the rope and belay Scott, wasting an enormous amount of energy in the process. By the time he arrived at the belay, I was feeling pretty smoked. I realized that I hadn't eaten or drank very much since breakfast, so I snacked on some nuts and drank a little water while belaying Scott on the next pitch. Scott climbed up and right around the "enormous white-topped flake" that the guidebook instructs is liebacked on the left side (which looked pretty intimidating when I gazed back on it, because the flake is separated 12 inches from the main face, and looked generally unprotectable). He worked up to the "thin, pointed flake" before manteling up onto the top of it, a move he called "the most exposed I've ever done on lead." It really was a heady move -- the flake, separated a few inches from the face, was perhaps an inch and a half thick, on in-your-face steep rock that dropped away for 1,500 feet, and you really had to yard on it to make the moves. It did not seem at all out of the question that the whole top of the flake, which Scott had slung with a long runner, could snap off at any time. It was yet another exhilarating pitch!

From the next belay, Scott again drew the lead, because the book listed the crux of this pitch as a "scary, no pro" 5.9 move around the arete, the kind of climbing more suited to Scott's leading abilities than mine. Scott looked a little out of sorts, so I asked him if he was okay. He told me he'd run out of water more than an hour ago, so I offered up some of my remaining half quart. After drinking some, he led up and around the first corner. Thirty or so feet later, he was at the exposed "scary, no pro" move. After making several efforts to pull the move, a high-step, mantel-ish move up and around the arete, with his pack threatening to pull him off, Scott finally gathered himself and committed. He succeeded, only to find that the pin constituting his next piece of pro was still out of reach! One more thin, heady move, and he made the clip, cruising to the bolts for the famous Double Pendulum pitch, a move that was first done on one narrowly-driven Army wafer piton! I lowered him down 20 or 30 feet off the pendulum bolts, all the while out of sight around the corner, to the second pendulum pin, then lowered him the remaining 15 to 20 feet to the corner where the A1 pitch begins. I followed the pitch to the bolts, from where Scott lowered me as I groped my way across the nearly featureless face, to the second pin. From there, I clipped a draw to the rope and rode it down to the belay, fingering my way across on very thin holds. We were not at all impressed by the belay anchor -- an old rusty pin backed up by two small nuts. There were several fixed nuts on the really thin A1 (or 5.12a) seam that led up and around the corner. I drew the aid pitch lead. Making strenuous moves on small nuts and Aliens, I worked my way up and around, repeatedly pulling on draws, clipping into them, then standing in extended runners to reach the next placement, until I was eventually able to make free moves to a sloping ledge. From here, the 5.5 Hand Traverse pitch lay before me. From the picture I'd seen in "50 Classic Climbs," I had expected a short traverse to the final belay. To my pleasant surprise, the traverse, hands atop thick, solid flakes, went on for over 100 feet! The moves and the exposure were sensational! At the comfortable belay, I could finally relax and take in my surroundings. Scott and I were all smiles when he rounded the final corner. All in all, we were exceptionally pleased to have stayed on route all day on a classic climb with reputedly difficult route finding.

Our happiness was short-lived, however, when we failed to discover any detectable water source in the huge bowl gained at the top of the DSB route. Our remaining light was fast fading -- perhaps an hour and a half left -- and the realization that we would spend a very thirsty night in the bowl hit us. Our misfortune was somewhat mitigated by the relative comfort of the bowl's bivy site; amidst a grove of pines, it was a virtual oasis in the sea of rock surrounding us. Although we'd planned to bivy in the bowl had we found a water source, we hadn't brought any real bivy gear along. I had an emergency bivy sack, a midweight polypro shirt, a Marmot Precip anorak, and I was wearing nylon pants; Scott had about the same, minus the bivy sack. We laid on the ground and waited out the night, making small talk about how good beers and burgers were going to taste when we got back, and reflecting upon how enjoyable this bivy would have been if only we had water. Fortunately, Scott's gum drops provided sustenance that didn't leave us completely cotton-mouthed. I felt like Coleridge's ancient mariner ("water, water everywhere, but not a drop to drink") as I listened to the mocking sound of water rushing through the valley below and gazed out upon the still waters of Leigh Lake. At around 3 a.m., after some sporadic sleep, we both woke up shivering, so we gathered some dead wood and lit a fire. After a while, I broke out my bivy sack and slipped in for some surprisingly sound, relatively warm sleep. Scott slept and woke in concert with the fire's rise and fall, which he tended throughout the remaining hours of darkness.

In the morning, we were able to locate some rap slings and began rapping the South Buttress Right rappels. But nothing seemed to jibe with the rap topo we'd brought along. After several full-rope rappels, we reached a point a few hundred yards of downclimbing away from Laughing Lion Falls. Water, precious water!! I scrambled down, placing a sling ladder at one point where the going got tricky, and sprinted for the falls. I drank until my stomach hurt, then filled two Nalgene bottles for Scott and me and slogged back up to the next rap station. The rappels seemed ENDLESS, and we ran out of water within an hour. A raging thirst hit us again as the sun beat down and we continued rapping on and on. All told, we rapped for nearly 5 ½ hours! Only when we found the last three stations did the rap topo make any sense at all. Fortunately, all the raps and rope pulling went smoothly. On the ground, we began the tired hike out, stopping frequently to drink from the glacial stream. When we got back to camp we had to move out pretty quickly, as another party (a family of five with an enormous load of equipment and provisions) was moving in. After a short swim, we were glad to leave the bugs behind, but not before we'd paddled over to recover the six-pack of Alaska Pale Ale we'd tied off in the cold stream that fed the lake. Although we were pretty damn dehydrated, it seemed unclimber-like, not to mention un-American, not to celebrate our good fortune with a cold beer! After one apiece, we shoved off and wore ourselves out completely paddling back to the car in the 96-degree heat.


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mickey - Jan 25, 2009 1:03 pm - Hasn't voted

Nice work!

Good tale, well written. I had a similar experience on the climb, the difference being we did have trouble staying on the route and spent the night on one of the ledges on the endless rappels. I posted a trip report on it as well.

It's always nice to have your own experience validated by someone else. I had actually forgotten how good, hard and exposed some of the climbing was on the DSB until I read your report. Thanks for a good story.

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