My wife doesn't climb, so our cross-country trip in 1983 did not include much of the sport. We hung around Devil's Tower for a week until I found partners to climb Durrance Route with, I soloed a technical route up an unnamed peak in the Bighorns, hooked up with a partner to climb at Colorado's Flat Irons one day, and scrambled at a few other spots here and there across the nation; just enough to open my eyes to a world full of possibilities. It wasn't long after returning home that I talked my closest climbing partner into a trip out west.
We were young, strong, and largely ignorant of the skills required for cliffs larger than a couple pitches, but we figured ourselves invincible and clever enough to solve any dilemmas along the way. The Bighorn's tallest mountain, Cloud Peak, held a thousand-foot east face looming above a small glacier, as yet unclimbed. We had dreams of making a sizable First Ascent and becoming, if not famous, at least somewhat notable; never mind that neither of us could lead 5.10 comfortably. My best climbing partner &, Paul Medici, yanked the passenger seat out of his '61 Beetle and replaced it with a flat board and cot. We stuffed camping and climbing gear in every other nook and cranny and sped - or rather puttered - westward. For eighteen hours we drove, taking turns at the wheel or the cot; until we pulled into Devil's Lake State Park in Wisconsin. We were both unaccustomed to sleeping on a cot in a Volkswagon Bug, so we took a couple days to recuperate and climb the slick quartzite walls surrounding the lake. A few of our new toys got put to the test: Skyhooks, etriers, a pair of twin ropes, and even a large cam, the first either of us had ever purchased.
We top-roped a steep wall and hooked our way to the top, mercifully avoiding pierced eyes every time a tenuous point failed, but falling uncomfortable distances due to the scrawny, stretchy ropes. We were in for a "learning experience," but neither of us knew entirely just how much learning we were about to do.
Another eighteen hours of driving found us pulling into Devil's Tower Nat'l Monument (why is it so many good climbing places are listed with the Devil?) at dawn. We were both bedraggled and worn, but Paul could not rest with that stone pillar standing in front of us. Giddy with exhaustion, we grabbed gear and headed for Durrance Route. I had managed one ascent of this line during the cross-country trip with Robin, so I had an inkling of what was to come. The 5.6 crux pitch had almost stopped me in my tracks two summers earlier; I hadn't improved a lot in the interim. We managed the route despite the 103°F temperature and a rare bout of humidity; but every other route on the Tower is harder, and we spent the next several days adjusting to a climbing style vastly different from the overhanging buckets of the Gunks. Off-widths, cracks, and slopers were the common elements here; it took us several days to acclimate to these strange defenses. During our stay, we were woken by obstinate Harleys every morning as the nearby motorcycle rally fed the campground huge doses of untrustworthy machines and plenty of leather-clad pushers to get them started. A pair of prairie falcons spent an hour or two threatening us off Assemblyline, one screaming at the belayer while the other dive-bombed the leader. Our learning was just beginning to get into full swing.
Onward across the desert we drove, into Buffalo and onward to the trailhead for Mistymoon Lake. Whatever our failures of the past week had been, we were about to test ourselves against the real stuff now, a real alpine climbing adventure. Altitude-weary and unused to heavy packs, we dragged ourselves over most the day to the open turf surrounding the lake, and spent what was rest of it cooking a meal and fitful, oxygen-starved sleep.
We were aroused by the din of sheep at dawn. Peeking out the tent door, I watched a staggering flock of woolly bodies crest the hill above and begin trotting down toward us. A writhing sea of dirty fluff converged on the tent, thankfully parting around us on their way to water and browse. With them past and their horse-mounted shepherds' passing, we got up and began our plan of attack. First would be a warm-up climb. We hiked a ways out toward Lake Florence, where a steep wall beside the trail offered a taste of the resident rock and a test of our abilities on it.
I took the sharp end, and in moments found myself thirty feet up, scrabbling for new holds as earlier ones fell all around my belayer. I don't know if the rock was unusually rotten or if we were just unaccustomed to rotten rock, but I've rarely been so gripped. Entire buttresses of stone creaked when I leaned on them. Paul began to step farther and farther away from the base of the cliff, hoping to avoid a stony death and burial; I searched frantically for a crack that would stay together long enough to place a nut and retreat. Finally, I found one, and nervously leaned outward. I did not dare touch anything lest it fall on me or my belayer. The seconds it took to reach the ground were eternal.
The attempt drained us both for awhile. We headed back to camp. Not quite able to surrender our plans entirely, I rested awhile, then hiked out toward the base of our intended prize. Before reaching sight of the East Face of Cloud Peak, one arrives at a slope leading steeply downward toward the lower basin. It was covered with snow. Neither of us owned crampons; neither of us had ever worn crampons. We didn't even know we needed them. I'm quite sure that I didn't end my exploration there because it was dangerous to go on - later events would teach me that - but thankfully, I stopped at that point for some reason. It probably saved my life. Thoroughly cowed by the precipices all around me, I hobbled back to the tent and joined Paul in admitting defeat.
We did get up Cloud Peak, via the hiking trail. That was difficult enough, and a full day's work for two sea-level wannabes sucking wind and falling all over the little snowpatches along the way.
With a walk-up ascent under our belts, we packed up and returned to the car, then drove westward some more, entering Yellowstone Nat'l Park and joining the hordes along the tourist route there. Paul had never seen this before; I had seen more than I cared for my first go-round. The campgrounds were brimming full, so we drove southward into and across Grand Teton Nat'l Park to the Gros Vente campground, the only option with vacancies. A day's rest and we decided to tackle another alpine summit. This time we would climb an established route. Discussion with climbers pointed us toward a promising goal: the South Ridge of Nez Perce. This route sounded like an excellent 5.6 running up a smaller peak along the Teton Ridge.
We arose before daybreak and drove to the parking area for the approach. Lugging a daypack full of climbing gear, snacks, and water, we began trudging upward, passing scout groups along the way and in turn being passed by climbers in much better shape than ourselves. After a long time, something seemed amiss, and sure enough, it was us. Somehow, we had missed a crucial intersection; revealed only upon our arrival at the aptly-named Surprize Lake. Looking at my contour map, it appeared the lake's outflow ran down to the canyon we were supposed to be in, so I suggested we just follow that rather than backtrack along the trail.
Trails exist for a reason, and that hair-raising scramble down is one of them. We may have saved some time doing this, but not much. The risks, slides, falls, and tumbles we took did not deter us, however. We descended eventually to our correct trail, close to the proper turn-off for approaching our route. We were running very late, but felt that turning back was out of the question. Failures were simply too common on this trip to allow an additional one. The walkaround to the start of our route was tortuous scree hiking. We were pretty beat when finally we identified the giant chimney that begins the route, and very late. We decided to climb the first two pitches, then rap down.
The plan went well except for the last part. The route ascends a giant chimney, climbing over two mega-chockstones along the way. It's circuitous enough to make rappelling nearly impossible. However, at the top of these two pitches, a small ravine led toward the other side of the mountain, the side our trail was on. I had the clever idea that we could traverse across up here and thus avoid the awful scree we had struggled through earlier. New plan: traverse the mountain and descend to the trail.
Away we went, at first on easy ground, but the ravine narrowed to a tight crack, and climbing up this short wall we were faced with a ragged, rotting ledge leading to fifth class climbing. Beyond this, it appeared to get easier ground reaching the notch that separated our side from the side we wanted to be on. Paul led the next pitch, a fine piece of desperate work, poorly protected traversing over a several-hundred-foot abyss. I followed without much less risk: without pro, the traverse was dangerous for both of us.
At the notch, we stared down the dark, forboding chasm before us. Black ice clung to its shadowy throat. We considered rappelling down this, but it wasn't an attractive thought. By this time, I was no longer certain it would reach our desired destination. For whatever reason, we chose against entering it, a decision that probably, once again, saved our lives. Instead, it looked quite trivial to climb upward, and we thought we could find the established descent route once we arrived at the top. That course would also allow some vestige of success for our trip. We headed upward, and sure enough, arrived on the summit without difficulty, though we were excessively late. The sun was nearly setting as we began seeking out the descent.
The route downward winds back and forth across the mountain. Cairns mark the path, but several steep sections hide the cairns from view, so we made a few false turns along the way. Downclimbing steep sections in the dusk was hard for Paul, whose nearsightedness made seeing distant footholds difficult, but finally we could see the trail below us in the fading light. An obvious rappel station, down a short cliff band to a snowfield running onto a talus field separated us from easy ground. We tied our skinny ropes together and Paul led the way down. I followed hastily, easily spooling myself along the snow to the end of the ropes in the jagged scree. Paul began pulling on the line, and in no time, they were stuck fast, perversely and thoroughly gnarled together at the anchors. Paul was all for abandonning them; I had a better idea. Batmanning along the ropes up the snow and hauling myself up to the anchors, I unwound them and then, thinking it easier to just walk, had Paul pull the ropes down while I ensured they made it without another snarl. After they slithered away, I climbed down the easy, short cliff, and stepped onto the snow.
It was then that I discovered just how deadly snow can be for a stupid, ignorant Easterner.
What had seemed solid and sure while leaning on a rope turned out to be a thin layer of slush over hard ice. With one step, I lost my footing and began careening downward. The sudden acceleration was amazing; so too was my instantaneous reaction to it. Frightfully aware of the jagged rocks below, I turned onto my belly and dug every protuberance I could think of into the surface below me: fingers, chin, knees, toes, nose. Miraculously, I came to a stop. My fingertips were raw, one boot was worn through to the toes, , my pants were ripped at both knees, I had no skin left on the tip of my nose and chin.
It seemed nothing could make that day any worse, but the weary hike out was met with a dead car battery at the parking lot. A little miracle work by Paul and we overcame that last obstacle, driving back to our tent just in time to watch the sun rise before going to bed.
After our unintended FA on Nez Percez, we did a bit more sightseeing, but no more climbing, as we headed eastward and home. Who's to say Easterners can't accomplish something big, even if they have to be stupid to do it?