The Pawnee Buttes are spectacular mud towers rising impressively above the plains in northeastern Colorado. While mostly visited by bird watchers and casual hikers, the two Buttes provide the only mountaineering objective in close to 100 miles. The East Butte sees ascents on a pseudo-regular basis via a series of "steps" carved up the north side (by the Sterling Fire Dept. in 1909). In contrast, the West Butte has experienced little human contact. Allegedly ascended by the same firefighters around the same time, the sheer walls of the West Butte put up a formidable defense. We estimated the previous ascent party to be 40 years prior and they were told they were approximately the 7th party to reach the summit. This has to be one of the most difficult summits to reach in Colorado since it's easiest route goes around 5.6X A4+.
Approach with extreme care.
Signing the register we placed on the West Butte.
See the main page
for excellent directions on reaching the Buttes.
The Buttes are pretty much in the middle of nowhere so allow some time to get out there.
I would like to open this with a few words of caution.
I do not recommend this climb for anyone. The mud on the technical pitch is rotten, dangerous and crumbles under the slightest touch. A free ascent is impossible, requiring aid techniques to be used. The original pieces of "gear" are a century old and have eroded severely making them extremely unreliable. The only means of "protecting" this climb are by using the original pieces or placing your own. All forms of iron (pitons, mudbeaks, etc.) are all extremely difficult to place and rip with slight pressure. Above the aid moves, there is a short mantel/traverse at around 5.6 that is essentially unprotected. A fall would almost guarantee a quick trip to the ground (warranting the A4+ rating). Also, the anchor possibilities to belay and rappel are poor at best.
With that in mind...
Approach the West Butte via the standard trail. As you pass below the imposing south face, make sure to look up and be amazed that this whole tower is held up by mud. Leave the trail on the east side of the formation and do an ascending traverse around the north side. As you ascend, look for the obvious weakness in the lower cliffs and work up towards it. When you get close, the original pins will come into view on a NE face. Start racking up and prepare for business. Ascend the steepening and unprotected mud cone (extremely unstable) to gain access to the vertical wall. Make several scary aid moves up the slightly overhanging wall to gain a small ledge. On the ledge, mantel up to the slightly higher shelf and perform a dangerous leftward traverse on small mudhorns to reach a "belay stance". Bring up your second while imagining your anchor is much better than it actually is. From here, perform a delicate scramble up through more loose terrain to reach the slopes below the summit cap. The cap's weakness is on the west side and pick whichever way you want to reach there. On the summit, enjoy your position and well earned break. Try not to think about the descent too much because it will ruin your stay.
To descend, merely reverse the route and pray as you rappel on the worst anchor I've ever trusted.
Here are a few photos of the route...
|Starting the lead. |
|Just below the mantel.
|Me starting up. |
|Ascent circa 1968 |
|The route, taken from East Pawnee Butte. Enlarge for better view.
You will need an assortment of climbing gear. I will not list specifics with the intention that if you don't know what you will need, you should not attempt this climb.
Please refrain from placing lots of gear. This is a beautiful rock and should not be ruined by lots of nailing. We only placed one piece on the crux wall and braved the original gear as much as possible.
What to expect the "gear" to look like.
|First bar. |
|Second piton. Best one. |
|The belay anchor.
External LinksUSFS Website.
is an excellent resource for weather.
My TR "In Defense of Adventure"
gives a detailed account of our climb.