July 26-28, 2004
Along our quest to become more comfortable on alpine rock, we decided to do some climbing in the Tetons. Actually we'd been wanting to climb here for a long time, but it's such a long drive from Omaha that we never quite took the time to make the trip--we always had other plans and other trips going on. Finally, thanks to our friends Will and Alison getting married in Meeteetse, WY, we had a good reason to take some time and head back to northwestern Wyoming.
Like usual, I wanted to find a climbing objective that was of high quality but also not highly crowded. It would be great to climb The Grand, but we really prefer our backcountry outings to be, well, more backcountry. Aesthetically Mt Moran has appealed to me since I first saw it in 1995. It may not be as pointy as The Grand or Mt Owen but there's just something about it that has drawn me to it. Maybe it's the mountain's sheer mass. Or the way it stands so proud at the northern end of the Teton Range. The fact that it is best approached by canoe makes it even more appealing--most climbers are too lazy to bother lining up a canoe to get to a climb.
It turns out, most climbers don't know what they're missing. Canoeing to a climb rocks!!! I wish I could canoe to every climb! (and with a little more practice, Angela and I might be able to do it without arguing.)
While we were crossing String Lake a bald eagle swooped down in front of us from out of a tree--very cool indeed! Our travels across the water took just over an hour and a half. That's including the thousand foot portage between lakes. The last stretch across Leigh Lake seemed to go on forever. We could see our objective but we didn't seem to be moving. It was like canoeing on an enormous glassy treadmill.
Finally we arrived at the foot of Mt Moran. There was just enough room between the boulders to bring the canoe ashore without getting our shoes wet. Three ducks paddled around between the boulders looking for some good eats. There were two other boats already on the shore--apparently we would have a little company up on the mountain.
As we raised our 70 lb packs to our shoulders, the easy part of our journey was over. The rest of the day all we had to look forward to was lots of steep talus and scree. Three thousand vertical feet of it! We've been on boulder fields before but this one was different than what we were used to. None of the rocks here seemed to be stable, regardless of their size. It made for slow, treacherous hiking. Thank god for our trekking poles! As we slowly rose up from Leigh Lake, that whole treadmill feeling came back. We kept moving, stepping upward with every step, but nothing around us seemed to change. Every time I turned around to see how we were progressing, it was hard to tell how far we had come. I began obsessively watching my altimeter to reassure myself that we were indeed moving upward. I would call out significant milestones to Angela, "500 feet, 750 feet." I'm sure she was not amused by this. It's the whole half-empty/half-full thing. In my mind I'd be like, "Whoo-hoo! 750 feet!" Angela, on the other hand, would be like, "That means we still have 2250 feet to go!"
After we gained a little ground the scenery got more interesting. There were wild flowers everywhere along our path. I stopped frequently to pop the camera out and burn up pixels. We passed several small waterfalls and there was actually a lot of water flowing right underneath us. At times this water would surface and it would be very loud, crashing through the talus. Then it would drop down below the rocks and out of view again.
Finally the East and West Horns came into view. These are two prominent spires on the east side of Moran. The stand guard over the suitably named Falling Ice Glacier. We would be hiking beneath these towers all day.
Finally after about six hours of steady (but slow) hiking with only minimal route finding difficulty, we made it to the CMC camp. Here we met the other climbers whose canoes we had seen earlier. It was a group being guided by Exum Mountain Guides. Two of the clients were actually from Omaha. What a small world! They had just gotten back from the summit and were resting a bit before packing up camp and heading down. Angela and I were exhausted and hungry. We scoped out the campsites and found a nice one that was just big enough to pitch our tarp over. With the tarp pitched we went about the usually camp chores--find some warmer clothing, pump water from the spring, and dig out the stove and the food bag.
After a tasty Backpacker's Pantry meal, we set about organizing our climbing gear for the following day. With that accomplished and the weather turning somewhat wet, we retired to our sleeping bags to try and get some sleep. We planned on getting up at 3:30 the next morning so the early bedtime was a bonus.
As we lay in the tent, quite the little thunderstorm brewed up. It didn't last too long though, and soon we noticed the sky brightening up. Curiousl, we poked our heads out through the door of the tarp and saw this incredible rainbow stretching down into Jackson Hole. We immediately slipped our booties on, grabbed the camera, and jumped out of the tent to get a better view. The rainbow was unbelievable--one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen, and clouds had parted just enough to let the nearly setting sun shine through onto the peaks south of us. We ran around giddily snapping photos in all directions. Eventually the light faded and we retired once again to our sleeping bags for our night's rest.
It rained lightly, off and on, during the night. I woke several times, anxious about whether or not we would be able to climb in the morning. Somehow I ended up sleeping through my alarm. Luckily I woke and checked my watch at 3:45. "Crap," I thought, "We were supposed to be up 15 minutes ago!" We crawled out of bed and prepared for the day. The weather definitely seemed iffy, but it was to dark to really tell what was going on in the sky. At least the pressure hadn't dropped overnight--that was a good sign. By the time we had breakfast, changed clothes and got the rest of our gear in order the sky was just starting to show some light. We left camp and started heading up at 5:25.
We had scoped out the first few hundred vertical feet of the route the previous evening. Since we had figured on doing this part of the route in the dark, we thought it might be beneficial to have a little preview when we could see more than 15 feet in front of us. Route finding through this section was definitely challenging. There was a pretty good selection of cairns along the way, but the route changed direction quickly several times on solid rock where there was no discernable trail to follow. This solid rock was the exception. Generally the terrain was quite awful. Less talus and more scree compared to the terrain the previous day. Two steps up--half a step down!
Eventually we gained the somewhat broad gully that was supposed to lead us to Drizzlepuss (Drizzlepuss is a small summit we were supposed to climb over on route to the CMC Face), however, we couldn't really make out Drizzlepuss and we weren't entirely sure where we were headed. But with steep cliffs on both sides of us we had little choice but to continue upward. As we moved higher things began to make more sense and look more like the pictures and topos I had studied for months.
Reaching the col between the West Horn and Drizzlepuss was one of the real treats of this climb. Reaching any col always gives me an exuberant feeling. That whole other world that opens up before your eyes on the opposite side of the ridge overwhelms the senses--so much to take in--and all at once! This particular vantage point offers a spectacular view of the Falling Ice Glacier which lurks in a huge bowl formed by the East and West Horns and the CMC Face itself. Between the Horns the glacier pours over a cliff where it frequently releases chunks of rock and ice. The surface of the glacier itself had an intriguing pattern of crevasses. They seemed to swirl like the glacier was getting sucked down a drain.
That sucking feeling got to me when we reached the top of Drizzlepuss. From the top of Drizzlepuss we were supposed to rappel into a notch and then finally start climbing on the CMC Face itself. However, we couldn't find a rappel anchor of any kind on top. It was a lot further down to the notch than I had imagined it to be, and the entire summit of Drizzlepuss seemed to overhang making the thought of downclimbing just sickening. If this wasn't enough, we had finally achieved what the guidebook calls "a terrifying view" of the CMC Face. For the most part the face just seemed huge and featureless. I stared at the topo trying to pick out "the line". I needed something concrete and absolute to prop up my waning self-confidence. I got nothing. We were on our own. What did I expect? This ain't exactly sport climbing (thank God!).
I finally gave up on looking for a rappel anchor--nothing seemed solid enough to trust. That left two options. Either suck it up and figure out how to downclimb safely into the notch or give in to the glacier as it tugged on my haul loop and head back to camp. I had to take a moment or two to collect my thoughts. The hell if I was going to let a little exposure get to me! I had to remind myself that I did possess the skills necessary to deal with this situation. I just wasn't used to this alpine environment and I felt out of my element. Besides, we'd put to much effort in to this approach to wimp out so easily.
We roped up, Angela wedged herself between some boulders, and she put me on belay. I awkwardly eased myself over the overhanging edge and quickly found myself on easier ground. The west face of Drizzlepuss proved to be a complex series of ramps and ledges. I zigzagged all over the place finding the path of least resistance. It was difficult to keep the ropes running somewhat straight and still offer some protection for Angela when she followed me. Eventually I did find a rappel anchor which helped bypass the final steep section of rock leading to the notch. Finally the approach was over, we had made it to the "climb"!
Once into the notch, we changed into our climbing shoes and stashed our hiking shoes and trekking poles under a boulder. The route at this point was obvious. To our right and left were steep couloirs dropping down to Falling Ice Glacier and Laughing Lion Snowfield. In front of us a fifty foot wall guarded passage onto the CMC Face. This short cliff was easily passed via an easy left facing dihedral. From there we traversed out to the right and onto the massive CMC Face. There was an instant sense of exposure as we traversed out over the glacier, but it didn't bother me now. My mind had now had time to adapt to the technical terrain and I was lovin' every minute of it.
After the first two hundred feet of climbing on the face I could see that it was going to be a cruise. As we had observed from the top of Drizzlepuss, the route was rather ambiguous with no obvious line or weakness to follow. However, now that we were up close and personal with the face, we could see that there were holds everywhere and the climbing was generally easy and low angle. It was much like a huge granite Flatiron. In order to climb quickly, we both agreed Angela would begin following me when I ran out of rope on the next lead. This way we could minimize the time spent building anchors and belaying, and we could maximize the amount of time that we would both be moving upwards.
Simul-climbing in the manner allowed us to climb the entire face in four pitches. I only stopped to build belay anchors when I had run out of slings for intermediate protection. One pitch was cut short by one of my ropes wedging in a crack somewhere far below me. This put me in a very bad mood as it stopped me dead in my tracks in a place where there was no chance of building an anchor. Luckily I managed to yank and tug on the rope and get myself about twelve more feet of slack. This let me reach a position where I could just manage to build a belay. Since we were using twin ropes I was able to belay Angela on the one that wasn't stuck and she had to gather the stuck one up as she climbed.
At this point we were probably about 500 feet from the summit. Angela noticed a rather ominous cloud building above us. We were so close to it that we could see every swirl as it billowed larger. Angela was convinced that this was not a good sign. I wasn't so sure and suggested we push onward and tag the summit anyway. If it rained anytime soon we were going to be in the middle of technical terrain whether we were going up or going down so I figured we might as well finish what we started.
As we neared the summit we got a good view of the cornice we had seen as a small strip of white when we canoed across Leigh lake the day before. It was nestled in the corner between the Black Dike and the top of the CMC Face. Our topo showed the route finishing right in the corner, but I had consciously stayed to the left not wanting to hang out below this big chunk of snow. You just never know when these thing might decide to let loose and plummet down the face.
The last couple hundred feet of climbing was really easy. I climbed through a bit of snow at the far left of the cornice and found myself on a large mostly flat summit surrounded by small sandstone boulders. I plopped down in a comfortable spot and hip belayed Angela up the final 200 feet. Soon her face appeared above the strip of snow and we were on top! What had looked like threatening weather earlier turned out to be just a partly cloudy sky. We theorized that the gnarly looking cloud that had been over us earlier was partly a product of the sun hitting and evaporating the Falling Ice Glacier. At any rate, we had incredible views from the top obscured only by a layer of haze which had blown in from some distant wildfires. The western slope of the Tetons is a stark contrast to the Jackson Hole side. The typical tilted layers of sedimentary foothills that one expects along the edge of a mountain range are numerous to the west and totally nonexistent to the east.
After packing away one of our ropes, eating a quick snack, and taking the obligatory summit photos, we started back down the mountain. It was about one o'clock in the afternoon--we'd already been on the move for 7 1/2 hours with only a couple short breaks. One of the more intriguing and committing things about Mt Moran is that there is no "easy" way off the mountain. No walkoff or asphalt trail this time. We had to turn around and cover all the same terrain in the opposite direction. According to the topo there was a rappel route that went down part of the face, but there was no guarantee that we would find the anchors on this huge face. We doubled up one of our skinny ropes and tied in so we were only 100 feet apart. (It's much easier to simul-climb with less distance between you.) We found fairly easy terrain at the southern edge of the face and zigzagged our way downward placing protection every 50-80 feet. Miraculously we did find a rappel station after descending 600 or 700 feet. We could have continued to downclimb but in our tired state (low on food and water) we decided rappelling might be safer. It certainly didn't turn out to be much of a time saver. The rappels were all on low angle terrain and the ropes wanted to do nothing but tangle together. Eventually we had to reverse our original traverse around Unsoeld's Needle and then one final short rappel landed us in the notch below Drizzlepuss.
Now after a long day on the move, we were presented with the technical crux of the climb--returning to the top of Drizzlepuss. The backside of Drizzlepuss is ridiculously confusing terrain. The descriptions from the guidebook shed little light on where to find the easiest line which was supposed to be around 5.6 or 5.7. And although we had downclimbed most of it earlier, we had bypassed this lower section with a rappel. It turned out to be quite a lot of fun finding my way up this thing. Long easy ramps were separated by short headwalls with some quite heady climbing. Once again I did a lot of zigzagging and make it all the way up before rope drag stopped me. At one point I had run out well over a hundred feet of rope only to find myself 25 feet above the notch where Angela was belaying me. Eventually I pulled the last awkward 5.4 move to the top of Drizzlepuss and Angela soon followed.
All that separated us from a well deserved night in our sleeping bags was about 2000 vertical feet of steep scree and talus. By this time our bodies were wasted. We should have put more effort into getting in shape for this climb! It was quite possibly the longest 2000 feet I've ever come down! Eventually we rolled back into camp exactly 14 hours after leaving it in the morning. It had taken us much longer than the guided party we had met the day before who were back to camp by 3:00. But at the same time the guidebook estimated 12-14 hrs for the climb and descent. Usually we're much slower than the average guidebook estimation, so we felt pretty good about our accomplishment. Besides, having a guide would take all of the adventure out of it!
We rehydrated, ate some yummy Backpacker's Pantry meal, and immediately went to sleep. The following day entailed some of the nastiest hiking we've ever done. Moving down all that loose rock with our heavy packs was just awful! Thank god for trekking poles! Without them we just might have tumbled all the way to the canoe. Needless to say, it took much longer to descend than we had anticipated.
When we got to our canoe our lower bodies rejoiced! Did I mention before how awesome a canoe approach is? Paddling for 1 1/2 hours sure beat the heck out of hiking any further with that burdensome pack on. The lake was once again calm and glassy giving us an enjoyable voyage back to civilization.
One of the remarkable things about doing a climb like this is the intimacy and familiarity you gain with the mountain itself. What had appeared before as a big, spectacularly beautiful mountain is now even more enthralling. The many nuances and subtleties of the mountain are simply not visible from a pullout along the park road--The East and West Horns and Drizzlepuss sit camouflaged against the main hulk of the mountain when seen from this distance.
It is only by climbing and moving among these formations you can gain a new, more complex, understanding. You learn that the Black Dike is more of a dark rusty red color than black. You learn that the Falling Ice Glacier is quite aptly named. You see that what looks like a sheer cliff face is riddled with usable holds and features. You learn that what looks like a nasty talus field is indeed a nasty talus field. And with this new, first-hand knowledge, you will never look at the mountain the same again.