It was our last day of climbing in the Tetons and it had been a great couple of days. My knee was feeling much better, the weather was fantastic, and we'd done some really long alpine climbs. We had decided the night before that we would do the North Face (5.6 IV) of Nez Perce. It would be an easy route to finish the trip and we both assumed it would go down without much of a fight. We even questioned whether we should bring climbing shoes.
We woke fairly late by alpine climbing standards, almost nine. "Busterman" questioned whether we should attempt it given the late hour, but I reassured him that we had almost twelve hours of climbing time and that the late start wasn't a problem. I was feeling confident, and that left me blind to my partner's lack of enthusiasm. I've never known "Busterman" to be lacking in enthusiasm. His usually equals or surpasses my own, and his lack of interest should have caused me to pause and take notice. I packed our gear and we ate breakfast. I was raring to go while "Busterman" for once was lagging behind. I got started up the hill without him while he went to the bathroom.
The hike through the talus occupied me. I was focused on navigating the path of least resistance and how that would get me to base of the climb. When I got to the foot of what seemed to be our most prominent obstacle, a patch of glacial ice, I paused and looked for "Busterman". I saw a small figure moving just above our tent site. I couldn't believe how far ahead I was, but I figured he would catch up. He always caught up. I skirted the margin of the ice, keeping to rock where I could, stepping on the ice when I had too, and I slowed considerably where I had to use the ice.
I was just near the top of the ice when "Busterman" was starting at the bottom, and in order to avoid kicking rocks down on him I moved slowly and carefully. When he finally exited above the glacial ice we both started moving faster and he finally caught up when I stopped to shed a layer of clothing. Now we just needed to find the start. Looking at the photo in the guidebook, we decided that the route started near the nadir of two couloirs that framed the north face of Nez Perce. The description in the guidebook was vague, but we figured the pictures were good enough and that it would be easy to delineate the easy terrain from the more difficult.
Scrambling up some easy cliffs near the base of a chimney, the most notable part of the guidebook description, I stopped to relieve myself. We'd been hanging out in the sun for most of this trip and while I sat there, exposed to the world, I realized it was much colder on this side of the valley. I quickly finished up and met "Busterman" at what we assumed was the start. He had racked up already and tied in, so while he laced up his shoes I put on my harness and tied in as well. The plan was to simul-climb the entire thing. Our equipment was ridiculously anemic: we brought a stunted set of nuts, a few cams, and that was it for protection. Instead of bringing a tag line, as we had on previous climbs, we simply folded the eight millimeter rope in half. It was a walk off, the weather was good, and retreat was not an issue.
"Busterman" started up the face and the rope ran out quickly. I warmed my shoes in my armpits while keeping my toes inside my jacket. Half the rope was out when he told me he would just belay me over. I quickly put on my shoes and after surmounting the initial difficulties I moved to his belay. He'd gone from moving far left to the chimney which swept back right, necessitating the moving of the belay to avoid rope drag. He decided to lead again so I handed him the two pieces he'd placed and made myself comfortable. The initial moves seemed a little awkward as "Busterman" lead off. After a while he was out of sight and all I had was rope movement to assess his position.
Soon enough the rope came tight and I announced I was climbing. The first moves were fairly difficult with some awkward offwidth/chimney moves and a smooth slab for the feet. I questioned whether we were on the right track because the moves seemed significantly harder than 5.6. After those awkward moves, the climbing eased off and we moved quickly, forgetting the awkward start. I caught up with "Busterman" at a belay after several hundred feet of reasonably easy climbing, and I accepted the invitation to lead the next pitch. After quickly obtaining the little gear he had left on him, I started up.
I was warm from moving and tried to keep the momentum going. I kept my eyes open for good gear placements but none appeared. Even if we'd had a larger rack there were no places to use it. The terrain was easy though and I figured something would appear. Finally, with about half the rope out, I found a nice slot for a .75 Camalot. I continued up and the difficulty soon increased slightly. I became more diligent about finding placements but still none appeared. Soon thereafter "Busterman" let me know he was climbing. I wanted more than a single piece between us and began to move slower. I was losing momentum trying to find gear placements and I knew soon "Busterman" would come to our only piece. Soon after that thought I came to that hated spot: the crumbling face met a steep, smooth slab in a wide V-slot. On my right the crumbling rock kept breaking off in my hand. On the left the steep, smooth slab would have rolled in at 5.12 by itself.
I came to a complete stop. I was calm, trying to solve the problem. I yelled down to "Busterman":
- Me: Hey, you know the green .75?
- "Busterman": Yeah?
- Me: That's our only piece.
- "Busterman": Oh...ok...
I was standing in the V-slot with one hand on a questionable hold and my foot tucked up near my chest and feeling fairly comfortable given the situation. I looked around for an easier way, protection, something to tone down the seriousness of our situation. Every hold I tested broke off. There were no placements for gear, no matter how hard I tried to will them to stay. My calm demeanor started to crack, my toes numb, heart pounding. "Fuck, fuck, fuck, I just need something...anything." Speaking to no one in particular. I threw nuts into the slot hoping they'd stick on something but to no avail. I could see what I needed to do but couldn't accept it. I knew if I fell we'd both die. That cam would explode and "Busterman" would be ripped off his feet. We'd bounce off the face a few times before free falling to the talus a thousand feet below.
My feet started to shake, muscles cramping with the exertion and the stress of being in my cramped position. We couldn't retreat, our rack was too small and with a sixty meter rope we'd be lucky to get down half the ground we'd come up. Downclimbing a scary and time consuming process seemed out of the question. I started swearing, "God you sonofabitch, this isn't funny!" I'm not a religious person and that's about as close to prayer as I get. The gravity of our situation began to weigh on me more heavily. I didn't want to do the move and I didn't want to die. All I had to do was step up on the small divot, push on the crumbling hold, and find another hold that wouldn't break without overcoming the coefficient of friction between the cold, slick rock, and the microns of rubber touching it.
I was starting to lose it, alternating between laughing hysterically and whimpering like a baby. "Fuck, fuck, fuck...we're gonna die...shit....shit..." After a while I decided to at least try. At least if we fell we'd die quicker than me sitting there freezing to death. I carefully stepped on the divot, trying to force the rubber into the rock while not breaking my only good handhold. I pushed off the handhold and reached up, searching with my left hand and there it was a small, rounded rail, barely one pad thick. I was halfway there. I struggled to bring my right foot up and match on the only handhold I had. I could feel the pressure on the divot, feel my foot slipping, and feel us careening towards Earth. But we didn't. I matched my foot to my hand on that crumbling handhold and stood up, the pressure equalized between the divot and the handhold where I'd been two feet ago.
I faced the ledge in front of me and quickly mantled onto it. I felt sick, barely able to breath, the panic in my mind making me crazy. I wanted to jump, to fly, to just get it over with. I looked around wildly, trying to find a place for gear so I could build a belay. The crumbling rock on my right offered few good options, just crumbling cracks and frozen moss. Further left I found an old knife blade that wiggled. Without thought in my panicked state I found a rock and pounded it in nice and deep and clipped into it. I looked for something else. I had made it past the scariest part of the route and wasn't going to rely on a single piton to keep us both off the ground. The rock, indifferent, offered nothing. I tried to fiddle in stoppers but they were all too big. Still having almost the entire rack on me, I went back to the crumbling corner to my right. Mentally exhausted I shoved three pieces into the crumbling rock and sat down on the ledge to bring "Busterman" up.
"Busterman" moved quickly and was probably cold from waiting for me. After a while he popped into that hated corner just below me. He quickly pulled through the move and looked at me. I was still shaking a little bit. "Do you want to keep leading?” he asked. I couldn't think straight with all the adrenaline, the cold, the mind numbing fear. "I might as well. I don't think it could get any worse." He handed me the .75, our only piece for a few hundred feet of climbing.
I was still too amped up from the previous pitch to realize I was in no shape mentally to lead. I clipped the rusty piton and stared ahead. It appeared I had three options. I could go left up a crumbling offwidth that was pretty steep. I could go straight up what appeared to be an overhanging fist crack. The last option was to go right to a low angle finger crack. The most probable option seemed to be the low angle finger crack, but I figured I'd decide when I got a little higher. Climbing higher, the overhanging fist crack seemed improbable. The chossy, exposed nature of the rock intimidated me and in my current state I was not interested, so I headed right, pulling intricate sequences below a small roof and climbing back and forth to a rest position.
I kept trying to reach the finger crack which promised easy climbing, good rock, and plentiful protection. I'd placed several pieces and although they were good pieces the rock they were placed in was playing games with my head. For what seemed like an eternity I climbed back and forth trying to reach the finger crack but I couldn't quite see how to reach it without letting go of the rock and leaning/falling across the small gap to reach it, which seemed a most unpleasant thing to do. Several times "Busterman" asked if I was stuck and after a few times there was a noticeable shiver in his voice. I asked how he was doing and his chattering teeth said more than words could. I had finally calmed down enough to realize he was stronger and faster than I was.
I asked if he thought I could be lowered to his belay. He thought I could and I backed up my last piece and told him to lower me gently. I still didn't trust the rock and worried it might casually spit us off the face. Stopping next to "Busterman" he was shaking noticeably and I gave him my puffy jacket. After switching ends he started up quickly and after about ten minutes he called off belay. I cleaned the anchor and quickly followed. Getting to that finger crack was much easier with the security of a toprope and a little bit of beta from "Busterman".
We were once again on easy ground and with "Busterman" leading the way we covered ground quickly, but the face seemed endless. "Busterman" led for several hundred feet before we switched again and I took over for several hundred feet. We'd been on the dark side of the beast for hours and I could finally see the summit bathed in sunlight. The promise of warmth, brightness, and salvation lifted our spirits considerably as we ran towards it.
From our position on the summit we were on the spine of a ridge that separated Garnet Canyon from Avalanche Canyon. The lakes in Avalanche Canyon glistened and the horizon spread out beyond our sight. The sun was bright and warm and it felt good to have lived through the experience. We stood there on for some time, talking about the climb and how horrible it was. I suggested the hardest moves were 5.11 and that the mental crux was the 5.10+ section I had survived. "Busterman" thought we might be overinflating the grades because of exhaustion and fear and suggested the crux being 5.10 and the mental crux being only 5.9. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle, but we had already decided we would never climb it again.
After a while we searched out the descent. Two rappels and a thousand feet of scrambling landed us in a saddle and seemingly endless talus and scree sliding. There is another camping zone in this saddle that is obviously not often used but it was certainly scenic. It took us a few hours to make it all the way back to our campsite. The sun was getting low and it was our last day. We rested for a few minutes and then struggled to pack up our camping gear. Neither of us felt like hiking down but our permit expired, so we didn't really have a choice. We shouldered our gear and started walking. Strangely, a bag we'd seen sitting on a rock for a couple of days was still sitting there. I checked the permit and saw that it had expired several days ago. Weird. We shrugged our shoulders, took a picture and headed down.
I was practically running and "Busterman" was close on my heels. Several hours later, the scenery went through several changes until finally we were at the car. We couldn't decide whether to stay at the Climber's Ranch again or try to find some NFS land. I was physically wiped but mentally awake and suggested we just drive home, despite it being about nine at night. We compromised and decided to drive a while and just pull over when we got tired. First though we couldn't avoid the lure of Jackson Hole. Driving through we decided to get some real food and some real drinks so we split a pizza and beer.
With some food in our bellies, we finally started driving but it wasn't long before we found a free spot off the road to camp for the night. As for the North Face we still don't know if it had ever been climbed before. Looking at pictures it seems like we followed the first several hundred feet of the North Face route but somewhere we veered off into the horrible unknown for about a thousand feet before meeting up again with our intended route for another several hundred feet of scrambling to the summit. We found a piton but since there was not another that we could find it doesn't suggest a line of direction so there isn't an easy way to know if we followed the same line or a different one. Either way we have yet to find any other information about a 5.10X route on Nez Perce. Neither of us is going back to investigate. My nightmares of us falling to the talus will make sure of that for years to come.