Mt. Moran, Direct South Buttress

By: Mike Sofranko | Climbers: Mike Sofranko, Tom F. |Trip Dates: July 7, 2000

Photo: Gary Clark

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Driving towards the Tetons with Tom on July 4th, I read aloud Rossiter's guidebook description for the summit ridge above the Direct South Buttress. "The entire ridge above the south buttress can be climbed unroped by a competent team..." After a sideways glance at Tom and a brief pause I added, "that would be us." Much laughter ensued, and we had a catchy phrase to describe ourselves; tongue in cheek, of course.

Our main goal for the trip was the complete Exum Ridge on the Grand Teton. After we climbed it on July 5th, we spent the 6th relaxing and doing a bit of bouldering at Jenny Lake, generally feeling like an exceedingly competent team. Soon, our thoughts turned to another climb. We wanted to see a different mountain, and we began thinking about Mt. Moran again. We negotiated between ourselves through the afternoon, and finally settled on a one night trip with the goal of doing two big climbs - the Direct South Buttress on the first day, followed by the South Buttress Right the next. We decided that if one rest day after the Grand wasn't quite enough, then 2 days rest would be too much. Glancing at the clock, we saw that it was nearly five o'clock, and the rush was on to get our bivy permit. Also, since the best approach to Moran is via a 3.5-mile paddle across Leigh Lake, we needed to rent a canoe.

After rushing around and (in the end, easily) obtaining both the permit and the canoe, we still had to sort gear and pack. We were pretty busy through the evening, but managed to get to bed at a reasonable hour. Late that night we received a couple new cabinmates - they woke us up, and we returned the favor in the morning. We pulled out of the Climber's Ranch at 5:00am, and were canoeing on String Lake at 5:20.

Neither of us had any real experience paddling, so we made our share of comic mistakes. We hit bottom once in a shallow section, and absolutely could not maintain a straight course - to the point of having the back end wash out several times and having to reverse course. I can't remember if we completed any full circles or not, but we probably did. However, we persevered and seemed to be making good progress, relatively speaking. After a short portage, we were on Leigh Lake, and something over an hour after setting out on our voyage we arrived at the mouth of Leigh Canyon.

Leigh Canyon is a relatively remote area of the Tetons - there isn't any official trail that leads there, and the only sane approach is to canoe in across Leigh Lake. As a result, the trail up the Canyon is inobvious due to infrequent traffic, and we never really found it. Ignoring the guidebook for no good reason, we stayed high on the right side of the canyon, and found enough cairns in the talus to keep us going. It was tough, but after a couple hours we were below Moran's South Buttress, dropping our bivy gear by the river.

We hung out for about 45 minutes, relaxing and organizing the rack. It was a bright and clear morning, and I could tell it was going to be hot. I settled on carrying a hip pack with my rain jacket, camera, and food. I wished for colder temperatures so I could just wear my jacket on the climb, as I had done on the Grand. The hike up the ramp to the start of the climb was loose, steep, and brutally hot. I was draining my quart water bottle way too quickly. Finally, we reached the chimney system that marks the start of the route.

After putzing around some more, we started flaking out the ropes (we were climbing on doubles because the rap route requires two ropes). All of a sudden we heard a rush of air and some large rocks crashed into the ledge beside us, right where Tom had just been standing. We ducked for cover as more rocks came down the chimney. We yelled up to let whoever was above us know that we were below, but after a few minutes more rocks came down. This time we really yelled a lot, and that was the last of the rockfall. When we were picking up our bivy permit, the rangers had mentioned that Jim Beyer and a partner had plans for a new route on the buttress. Later in the day we heard someone pounding pins to our right, out of sight, so that was probably them.

After waiting for a while to try to assure myself the rockfall was an anomoly, I headed off up the easy chimney with the plan to have Tom simulclimb below me and combine the first 3 pitches. The chimney was described as 200 feet long, and we had 60m ropes, with a shorter 3rd pitch traversing left along a ledge. I got a little freaked by the amount of loose rock (I was worried about bombing Tom) so I stopped after 250 feet and belayed Tom up. He continued on to the top of the upper ramp - supposedly 200 feet from the start, but more like 300. This was the beginning of our route finding problems - we definitely put too much value in the topo the whole day.

I led a nice 5.9 section to an easy and loose traverse ledge, and climbed left to some fixed webbing. Tom noticed an anchor to the right on the ledge, but we continued on to the left. From there we headed more or less straight up. Route finding was a challenge, as we could make no sense of the topo in relation to the rock, and there was no obvious line to follow. The route wanders all over the place up a vertical face. We encountered random pins and fixed gear that gave us some hope of being generally on route, but we still spent a lot of time and energy trying to determine where we were.

Pretty much every pitch seemed to involve 20 to 40 foot runouts between often marginal gear while trying to figure out which way to climb. I had been expecting a soaring buttress with clean cracks and dihedrals, and I was faced with a vertical lichen covered talus field. Nothing looked solid, and most of it wasn't. I started to melt down a bit - I was consistently getting the more difficult and loose pitches and generally not enjoying myself. I found what I believed was the 5.7 chimney shown in the topo, and thoroughly thrashed my way up it. I was hindered by my hip pack and by horrendous rope drag. On the loose ledge at the top of the chimney, I reached a point where I couldn't move. I just about lost it, and when Tom finally joined me he asked if I wanted to descend. I had calmed down a bit by that time, and resigned myself to a crappy day, so I immediately replied "No." Me not having fun didn't seem like a valid excuse to bail. We were on route as best we could tell, and the weather was perfect other than being a bit hot, so it was clear that we should continue. Our competent team was slightly less so - my role for the day was dead weight.

After a few more pitches that I can't remember, we passed the huge detached flake that Rossiter says to lieback up the left side. Since that was yet another certain death fall, I opted for an easier passage on the right. A pitch later and Tom was belaying below the pendulum bolts, and we could taste the top of the climb. At this point the climb started to get fun for me. The bolts for the pendulums were not confidence inspiring, but I put those thoughts out of my mind, and soon I was tensioning to the bottom of the crack. I used a runner and quickdraw combination to aid through the fixed pins and nuts - I only had to place one TCU. Then, I had one last loose belay ledge to deal with, and my lead duties were over. Soon Tom was working through the pendulums. He quickly aided the crack as I did, and led off on the last exposed pitch.

The final pitch heads straight right on a super exposed hand traverse, given 5.7 by Rossiter. We both found it just as exciting as advertised with over 2000 feet of air below our feet, and also rather stenuous for 5.7. Since the climb is described as 11 pitches in the guide, and I led first and Tom the last, we figured that we did the climb in 12 pitches. It was about 6:00pm when we topped out in the large bowl at the the top of the buttress - positively glacial compared to our ascent of the Grand two days before, although we did take it casual in the morning. Thankfully we had stable weather.

Since we weren't continuing on to the summit, it was time to rappel. We roped up across the sketchy parts of the bowl, and scrambled over to the trees. We located a rap anchor on the outside of the bowl, and downclimbed to it. From there the raps went smoothly, although we had to scramble around loose ledges to find the anchors. We lost the regular rap route for one rappel and ended up rapping off one sketchy anchor, but we were soon back on route. A lot of the raps are either bolted or consist of bomber fixed pins, but finding them isn't always easy. In my opinion, it would be impossible to do this descent in the dark - even with a headlamp. The views of Laughing Lion Falls were exquisite, and served to continually remind me that I was out of water and totally parched. We finally touched down on the loose approach ramp, and then slid down to our bivy by the river, which we reached at 9:00pm. A truly exhausting day.

The next morning required no debate - there was no way we were going to head back up that wall again on the South Buttress Right. We packed up and headed out - this time staying on the discontinuous trail by the river, which proved to be much easier than the talus of our approach. After the paddle out, we drove straight to Dornan's to return the canoe, and got away with a one-day rental. We then packed the rest of our stuff back at the ranch, and hit the road for home.

Immediately after the climb, I declared it the worst route I had ever done. Now that a little time has passed, my opinion has softened somewhat. I think I went into the climb with false expectations. Many people had called the South Buttress the 'best rock in the Tetons'. After a fantastic and easy time with the Exum Ridge, I was expecting similar climbing on the DSB (which, with a bit of rational thought, was absurd). Confronted with reality, I didn't react that well. Had I known what to expect, I think I would have approached the climb with a different mindset, and I would have enjoyed it much more. The DSB is a long and serious route. Route finding is difficult, and loose rock and large runouts are common. Though it's given 5.7 A1 in the guidebook, we found several sections of harder freeclimbing. Best to be prepared for solid 5.9 and trivial but fun aid. The descent is long and involved. The climb is in a remote location, adding to the seriousness. However, as time passes, I find myself forgetting the unfun aspects and remembering the positive. Overall, we had a fantastic trip: With two big routes in only 3 full days in the Tetons, I can't feel anything but pleased.