EAST RIDGE OF BUCK MOUNTAIN IN THE CLOUDS
This was the most exciting climb of the summer so far! In many ways it was also the scariest. Buck Mountain is probably my favorite climb in the Teton Range so far and this, my second ascent of the East Ridge, reconfirmed my love for the peak and the route.
Whitney and I hiked up through wet conditions, after a night of rain, to Timberline Lake just below the Buck Mountain summit block. The climber's trail is generally pretty narrow going up Stewart's Draw and all the vegetation was soaking wet and so were we by the time we reached the lake.
But it was worth it! I've been waiting for years to be high in the mountains on a day when the Hole was filled with fog.
Conditions were dreary at the lake. This gave us serious pause but we decided to hike to the start of our objective the South East Ridge of Buck Mountain. (III 5.6)
We wanted to try out this classic climb but we didn't know much about the route and we couldn't see it very well through the clouds from the lake. But we figured we could at least hike over to the start and see if things blew off by the time we got there.
Things certainly did not blow off...
The weather report gave a small chance of thundershowers later in the afternoon but the morning was supposed to be mostly sunny. Not quite true this day.
So we took one look at the start of the South East Ridge route and decided to try something different. It was too scary and too unknown for us. We'd just brought a small rope and very light rack so we might have had trouble if we'd need to get out of something in a pinch.
So we decided that things looked much clearer over on the main East Ridge and I'd ben up that before and knew exactly what it was like so I wasn't worried about doing it in low visibility. So we traversed a grassy ledge between some cliff bands on the face of the mountain.
Once we got onto the main East Ridge things did look clearer and not so bad. So we decided to zip up to the summit on the ridge and then come back down the East Face. I knew this route well and we felt that even in bad conditions we could reach the summit and be down to safety without much risk.
But as we climbed the mountain became increasingly cloudy and foggy. Soon you couldn't see more than a rope length away. This is when the climbing started getting exciting and a little scary. I don't know why, but the exposure was much more thrilling and scary when you couldn't see what was out there. Last summer when I climbed this route I found it exposed, but not at all scary. This time around, with the threat of weather hazards and the lack of visibility some of the sections were just about terrifying.
Only two sections of the ridge stand out as 'cruxes'. The first is a one move across a little gap. I'd say its still only a 4th class move, but its exposed and under the bad conditions it was particularly scary.
The second is more of a physical crux and isn't as scary. I'd call it 5.4ish climbing up a short little chimney but its not all that exposed - making it mentally much easier.
As far as I can tell there isn't a lot of room for variation on the East Ridge of Buck. Both times I've climbed it I've been funneled from the wider sections at the bottom into the exact same series of moves on the upper section. It really is a very narrow ridge with a sheer drop of thousands of feet to the North and a less dramatic but still dire cliff to the south.
Much of the ridge is smooth, clean, solid, and continuous granite split by pretty fist cracks. There isn't much for face holds. You often find yourself using the top of the knife-edge-ridge for hands and a nice crack for feet. But sometimes you just smear your feet and hope the fog isn't making the rock too wet...
Towards the end of the ridge the clouds thinned enough to see the summit but after that the weather gods rallied and things got dark fast.
We took a summit photo and bolted down the East face as the skies gloomed around us. The East face is a very moderate hike that provides a quick decent for the other routes on Buck and if this route wasn't there for descent we would have never went up the mountain in such sketchy conditions. It took just over half an hour to get back to the lake where, while we stopped for a quick snack, it began to thunder and poor slushy hail down on us... we had cut it close. From there it took barely 90 minutes to run back to the car with thunder shouting down motivation.
In the end the scariest thing about this climb wasn't anything that happened; it was what could have happened. We spent a lot of time discussing 'what ifs' the rest of the day.
What if we hadn't chickened out on the South East Ridge? We would have been on the exposed ridge of the mountain MUCH longer and would have certainly encountered the storm in a place with no cover and no easy retreat.
What if we'd sat around the summit enjoying ourselves at the top? Again, high on the mountain in the storm, though we could have retreated once things got bad, but could have gotten down far enough fast enough?
We ultimately decided that the safest thing would have been to just call it a day after reaching the lake and not ascending the summit block at all. Or even going up the East Face would have been safer given the conditions as it would have allowed a faster retreat at any point.
These were all things we knew at the time and even discussed with each other as climbing partners should. But the reward of climbing the ridge in the clouds seemed worth risk at the time. Looking back I'm glad we went for it because it was probably the coolest climbing experience of my life. But I probably wouldn't do it again.