The alarm went off early, too early. I usually don't feel sleepy, but at four in the morning all I could think about was skipping the climbing and taking a rest day. It seemed like "Busterman" was in similar condition and so we lay there for a few minutes before we convinced ourselves to crawl out into the cold morning air. I stepped out into the darkness and couldn't see the stars. That was a bad sign.
A bitter breeze that blew over the saddle burned my cheeks, so I put my belay parka on. "Busterman" made his way out and I started on breakfast. I'd decided to try a "no-cook" method of breakfast. I'm not a big fan of oatmeal so I brought flatbread and honey for us to eat. Two pieces per day, almost five hundred calories to start the day. Problem is that honey is none too viscous in the frigid morning air of the Cathedral Range. After each sticking it in our armpit to loosen it up a bit we were finally able to taste the sweetness. We then split up the gear and were ready to go. "Busterman" had to drop some chocolate brownies so I started up the hill, occasionally looking back for his headlamp.
I was taking my time and kept looking back for "Busterman", trying to gauge when I should start moving more quickly. When I got to the base of the Black Dike I waited briefly. I saw a small dot of light near the bottom of the saddle and figured it was "Busterman". I waited a while until he got closer and then started moving towards what I assumed to be the starting point, the first major ridge that lead toward the summit. "Busterman" was finally catching up and about the time we got near the base of the first ridge we both started to scramble up. The guidebook says to look for large chimney. I saw a large chimney and headed towards it. We both agreed that it looked more like 5.12 offwidth, so we wandered around for a bit and then scrambled back down, "Busterman" believed it must be farther down the Black Dike. I reluctantly followed feeling that we were somehow missing something farther up.
I followed "Busterman" down and then across to a spot between two ridge features. After scrambling up a few hundred feet we turned around without finding an obvious chimney. So on to the next ridge feature we scrambled up, and kept going to what looked like the top of a pillar. Upon arriving there we looked across and from our ridge top viewpoint we were able to see the silhouette of the first ridge we'd come from, obstinately sitting there obviously the feature making up the first pitch. Unfortunately, being on top of a pillar it seemed we'd have to waste yet another hour scrambling back down and across to even start our climb. Thus far we were doing poorly. The weather didn't look stellar and we were wasting a ton of time getting on a climb that was about twenty five hundred feet in length.
Out of that muck and mire came a small beam of light. Apparently we weren't the first ones to make this mistake as I found some bail gear. After some discussion on whether we'd be able to make it across or if we'd have to leave our own bail gear for another rappel we decided to go for it. "Busterman" rappelled first and then myself. We made it across without incident till I got halfway up the other side of the chimney at which point I needed to drop some chocolate brownies of my own. After some difficulty I was finally able to drop my load in the middle of the chimney without dropping anything else. When I joined "Busterman" on the top of the pillar we realized we'd missed the first pitch. It wasn't worth going back, so we got ready to go and I took the lead. The plan was to simul-climb as much of the Lower Exum as we could and then switch and try to do as few belay changeovers as possible. I started up with my feet frigid, my hands frozen. After twenty feet I placed the first piece. I was still in my belay parka at this point but was still cold. The wind had picked up while we were preparing to climb and I hadn't gotten the juices going enough to properly warm myself.
Shivering with anxiety and cold, I moved on. Three pieces later "Busterman started climbing. We simul-climbed about three pitches to the Black Face, the intimidating centerpiece of the Lower Exum. As I started up the Black Face I was surprisingly pumped. The face is deceivingly steep but the holds are good. Bail gear was littered across the face; it was a graveyard of aspirations. I clipped what I couldn't clean to conserve gear and kept going. As the rock color changed from black to gold I worried about the Gold Face, a 5.10 variation to my right. I kept checking to see if "Busterman" had caught up, one hundred feet of thin nylon seeming infinitely more distant than ever before. Eventually, about halfway up the Black Face, "Busterman" came into view. I felt more confident, no longer alone, but it was just starting to turn light and I was running out of gear. I climbed about a third more of the Black Face before building an anchor. I clipped a fixed nut and added two of my own, called down "On belay", and sagged onto the rope breathing heavily.
"Busterman" followed nimbly through most of the crux pitch and only hesitated shortly on a section, enough to let me know it had been as hard as I thought. We both felt the pitch was certainly a little harder than we hoped it would be and we both seemed grateful to have a solid belay through it. Quickly exchanging gear "Busterman" blasted off and finished up what remained of the Black Face, marking the end of the Lower Exum.
The rest of the climb was a blur with lots of short-roping, terrain belays, and a little bit of graupel snow. After a small snow squall caught us off guard, the clouds started to fade and the sun came out. Still, I felt cold and couldn't bring myself to remove my parka. We were running up semi-vertical and vertical terrain at high speed and I still couldn't build enough body heat to remove my jacket. Eventually, we topped out on the final ridge and made our way to the summit. For the first time since starting I really took in the view. To stand on the Grand Teton is to stand amongst giants. The other Tetons stand nearby and from there the next large mountain range is all the way over in the Winds, which can barely be seen. The sun shone on us like a spotlight and we lounged there alone. Neither of us wanted to head down, so we watched as clouds floated beneath us and the sun took it's daily stroll across the sky.
The summit holds it's charms, but we knew we couldn't stay all day. After a while we decided to head down. Meandering through the clouds on the northern side of the mountain, we came to the first rappel, a slung block. "Busterman" pushed and prodded it and decided to back it up with a cam higher up. After he slid down the rope I went next, removing the cam. On our way to the next anchor we ran into our first climbers of the day, a couple coming up the Owen-Spaulding. After answering a few of their questions, we made our way to the next rappel station, again a slung block. Next to it, though, was a bolted anchor. I'm not sure if this was for rescues or to alleviate at bottleneck at this rappel but either way I'm not satisfied with either explanation in my own mind. The use of bolts at this spot seemed unnecessary.
Either way we quickly slid down to the talus below and started following the path to the Upper Saddle. A few minutes later and we were there to witness the conga line making it's way upwards. It was all downhill from here. "Busterman" with his healthy knees and speedy feet went beyond my sight fairly swiftly. I took my time and laboriously tried to use my uninjured leg. Looking down I knew the descent was going to take me hours so I focused on my feet and took it one step at a time. On our way down "Busterman" and I took pictures of the route which was painfully obvious in the mid morning light. We could see Wall Street and the entire ridge including the few pitches we missed.
The climbing had been easy but I still was excited with this being one of the more well known mountains I'd climbed. For a little while I kept up with "Busterman" but halfway down to the Lower Saddle I lost track of him completely. The jumble of talus and boulders made for interesting route finding. People without the view from above were scattered on the slopes below, some being completely lost, others only confused on which path to take through the talus.
A few hours later and I met "Busterman" at the Lower Saddle where we both lay on the ground with sun shining on our faces and happiness in our hearts. "Busterman" checked his watch, it wasn't even noon yet. It'd taken us less than eight hours to climb and descend a twenty five hundred foot technical ridge and we were quite satisfied with ourselves. Certainly not a record but a respectable amount of time to complete such a route. Smug with self-satisfaction we sat there for a while passing a bag of mixed nuts back and forth. Eventually, we got bored with ourselves and headed back to the tent. "Busterman" was not quite tired enough and decided to go and solo the Middle Teton. I was not interested and instead looked for our next objective. A few hours later "Busterman" was back, his solo successful, if not a bit wild sounding. We made dinner and lounged around as the sun made it's way past the horizon. A successful day was behind us so we worked on rest in order to steel ourselves for the difficulties ahead.