Thursday, September 24, 2009

New Route in Death Canyon - The Alien Wall

In the Tetons, Death Canyon holds two of the most stellar, and popular, rock climbing routes: The Snaz and Caveat Emptor. When you are climbing either one, however, what often catches the eye is across the canyon: another huge, nearly 2000 foot wall that has seen little summer activity in over 20 years. In fact, the last route put up was Jack Tackle and Jim Donini's route Predator in 1987. (Correction: the Carson-Whiton was established in 1990)

The Lower Northeast Face of Prospectors Mtn. This is also the south side of Death Canyon. All the climbs starts halfway up the bench. Big wall, eh?

I remember that night clearly; my worried mother, among other concerned friends, dispatched my Dad and I to collect Jim and Jack after they had failed to return home at what she deemed a "reasonable time." It seemed that even those two consummate climbers could not escape the watchful eye and worried mind of my Mom. We met them safe and sound on the trail around midnight and I was enthalled and a bit horrified of their story of a mini-tornado whipping through the canyon, fouling their ropes up proper and causing a delay. Since then, I have climbed the Snaz and Caveat an embarrassing number of times, and each time I have looked over at all that virgin rock across the canyon and promised myself that this season I would do something about it. Needless to say, summer moves into fall and my intentions slipped away.

Death Canyon is also a very special place for me because I learned to climb there as a kid. I remember Jim Donini teaching me the basics of wide cracks as he hauled me up The Snaz; conning Alex Lowe into wandering around the Omega Buttresses looking for new and interesting lines. While climbing with the incredibly hilarious Tim Toula, he would leave little notes on ledges and cracks; unfolding them would reveal the best beta one could ask for: "PULL DOWN HERE!! or "THIS SLOT PROBABLY HAS SNAKES!!" The most special times in Death Canyon have been spent with my Dad. Just this year we climbed Apocalypse Couliour in June, and in July he fired the Snazette variation on The Snaz. At 69, he is a total inspiration and a reminder for me of what is possible with kindness, patience, and a good attitude. Best of all, I can gaze across the valley at my parents house while doing most of the climbs there; it literally feels like my backyard.

My dad beginning the creek crossing in mid-June. We dragged/threw that evil wet log to span the creek; three days later it had been swept away. Totally insane that time of year.

With this history in mind Joel Kauffman and I set out to take a look at Predator and explore this amazing wall. After crossing the creek (late season is dreamy, early season crossings can be the crux of your day) and 'shwacking through the alders for about 40 minutes, we gained the start of the face.

Joel Kauffman gazes up at the face as we gear up. The wet streak behind him forms Prospector's Falls in the winter.

The first 150 meters were easy 5th-class scrambling, with a few roped pitches of moderate though run-out face climbing. We eventually gained the bench where the real climbing starts. After an initial pitch of 5.6, we had our first good look at Predator. To us, I am sure it looked way more intimidating than it did for Jack and Jim, with the crux pitches looking like they required a bit more jungle mountaineering and cleaning than we were up to.

Crux bulge on The Alien Wall, pitch 2. The crux pitches of Predator are hidden away above in the clean, right facing corner.

Above us looked iffy as well: hard face climbing with scant gear. The wall here is steep and you can't see far ahead with all the bulges and small corners. Joel bravely traversed out to the middle of the face. What we found truly surprised us: the sun was hitting the wall, the angle eased back to a more reasonable pitch, and the climbing got even better. I couldn't see much beyond the rope traversing left, but Joel took 55m of rope and turned it into an awesome pitch.

Joel heads out into the unknown on pitch 3

The Alien Wall ( IV, 5.10-) follows a fairly direct line left of Predator. We climbed the route in 7 long 55m pitches. The climbing was wild and varied for the grade: steep face climbing, stem-box corners, thin flakes, and cracks from cranking fingerlocks to a small offwidth section.

Conserving gear on P4

Joel totally psyched at getting the next pitch...

....and making the most it. Joel in a beautiful stem box corner. Above him was an amazing flake system full of nice fingerlocks. We could hardly believe we were in the Tetons

Mark admiring the final two pitches

Mark on steep rock on the 6th pitch. Lots of rock above!

Joel takes us out up the final headwall

Pitch 4 would be a face-climbing classic anywhere and had some of the wildest rock I've seen in the Tetons; dense, dark, solid rock with the classic knobs and chicken heads twisted into psychedelic formations. Pitches 5-7 were also stellar climbing on protectable rock.


Nine long rappels on trees plus some downclimbing get you to the base of the wall and back to terra firma. My thanks to Joel for making the climb so special.

The Alien Wall (IV, 5.10-, 400m), Mark Givens and Joel Kauffman, September 2, 2009.