| The Flying Buttress
The Flying Buttress is a proud fin of rock nestled in the Long's peak cirque, forming one of the more prominent features on Mt. Meeker's steep north face. It is flanked to the left by the ultra-classic Dreamweaver and on the right by the more difficult but less well-known Dark Star. It is widely considered to be one of Rocky Mountain National Park's rock climbing classics; one mountainproject member even made the bold claim that it is one of the best routes at its grade in the country.
The Mt. Meeker and Longs peak cirque
The Flying Buttress in early morning glory
The Flying Buttress is notorious for having many possible variations ranging from 5.9+ to 5.11. In particular is the 5.10c direct start which consists of a thin finger crack on a steep slab which is regarded to be somewhat challenging to protect. None of the routes stray far from the prow but occasionally more difficult features need to be dodged to either side in order to keep the difficulty at a more moderate grade.
The Flying Buttress from the base of the approach slabs. Don't go right.
We arrived at the base of buttress at 7:30 and found another party already starting up the first pitch. In order to leave plenty of separation and to allow us to retrieve our packs easily, we decided to rack up at the base of the slabs. Unfortunately, while racking up, another party passed us and set up shop right behind the first team. We took it as consolation that the weather forecast is highly favorable and that we would have to settle with having a longer day. We set off to scramble up the slabs on the right side which appeared to be 4th or easy 5th class from the base. It was not until half way up that we realized the slabs were somewhat more difficult and approaching the limit of our soloing comfort. A careful traverse back to the left side of the prow brought us into much easier terrain and led to a large ledge where the other two parties were queuing up. Tom joked that we had taken the URR start (unnecessarily risky route).
Looking up pitch 1, the dihedral referred to in the guide is the one directly off the ledge, not one of the ones higher up.
The party that we had initially spied from the base of the slabs was still on the first pitch, and the party that passed us was waiting in line behind them. We knew that we were in for a bit of a wait, so we took the time to enjoy the nice weather for the next hour. I found a nice ledge to lay out on while Tom took to an exposed perch.
Tom hanging out waiting for our turn on the route
Tom's face made it clear that he was not happy with he progress of the parties ahead of us. The first group was moving at a snails pace, and the leader of the second group wasn't moving much faster. We reviewed the route description found in "Rocky Mountain National Park: High Peaks: The Climber's Guide High Peaks" by Bernard Gillett in further detail and came to the conclusion that both parties were off route far left.
P1: Gillett: Climb the dihedral followed by a chimney on the right, then move up right to a stand on the prow, 5.8. Belay here, or climb around right and up to the next ledge at 165 feet (better).
Knowing that the parties ahead of us had both strayed off route, I was careful to find the correct chimney. I was surprised to find that the correct chimney was so early in the route. There is a small dihedral at the base of the belay pitch which I had not initially assumed was the same dihedral referred to in the guide. I found the chimney just after crossing a series of easy ledges, though it looked more like a V slot from the bottom. Interesting stemming and chimney moves followed by an ascending traverse along a thin flake led me back onto the ridge.
Looking down pitch 1
What the guidebook failed to mention is that by continuing to the better ledge above, it was necessary to rejoin the 5.10 finger crack slab for a brief period. A couple short but committing moves deposited me onto the good ledge where I had caught up with the second party.
Looking up the top of pitch one just below the belay ledge
While belaying Tom up, one of the guys in the other party was feeling "altitude sick" (based on earlier comments while waiting in line we suspected hungover was more accurate) and they decided to bail. We allowed them to rappel off of our anchor so that they wouldn't have to leave any gear. Even though this cost us a little extra time, it opened up a better spot on the belay ledge.
P2: Gillett: Step back onto the east face and follow another dihedral, move left to a short corner and regain the prow at a good ledge with bolts on the right, 5.9.
Before bailing, the other party had told us of a 10a variation which goes straight up the prow over a small roof. They described it as a short move, which looked more inviting than the chossy dihedral to the left.
Looking up the 10a variation of pitch 2
Tom took the lead, placing a small nut as his second piece at the crux. Just before pulling over the roof, he slipped and took a small but exciting fall. After a few moments of psyching himself back up, he pulled the roof in style onto easier terrain. He worked his way up a splitter hand crack and then dodged an intimidating roof to the left.
Tom leading pitch 2
When it was my turn to second the pitch, I ended up having to hang on another piece to get the nut out, as it had solidly wedged itself into the crack. I followed the exposed around the left side of the prow to find Tom at a hanging belay just short of the bolted ledge. Apparently rope drag had gotten so bad that Tom couldn't finish the traverse. We elected to finish the traverse and make it to the large ledge as a micro pitch instead of keeping the hanging belay. The bolts ended up being garbage 1/4" relics, but a solid slung chockstone made for a solid backup.
Tom at his hanging belay
P3: Gillett: Move up left and climb a left-facing corner that ends at an intimidating roof, 5.8. Jam through the roof at a fist crack, 5.9+, step left to a thin seam, and take that (5.10a) to a stance on the right.
This was the money pitch that everyone had been talking about. A large roof split by a wide zig-zagging crack guards the upper portion of the route, though the guide says that weenies can dodge it to the right.
Looking up pitch 3 with the large roof looming above
A close up of the same roof
In a word, this pitch was phenomenal. The left-facing corner described by Gillett was a fingers/thin-hands splitter crack. As I jammed my way up it, I felt a small tug at my foot and suddenly realized that I had just lifted out my last stopper, leaving the next piece of protection well below me. Even though I was at a good stance, I nervously retrieved the nut off my foot and replaced it. The crack eventually widened up to a splitter cupped hands/fist crack and led to a good rest below the roof. While composing myself for pulling the roof, I took the liberty to get a few shots looking back down the pitch.
Looking down pitch 3 just below the roof
Once I considered the sequence of moves and gear placements, I set off with a combination of good holds and jams. A #4 protected the final roof move well and I let out a loud whoop of excitement once I cleared it and found myself at a good stance. I continued up the slab and traversed my way to the thin seam that Gillett had described. It was shallow and slightly flaring, making for challenging protection opportunities. A few delicate moves led to easier terrain, which was a great relief since I was running low on slings and the rope drag was getting unbearable. I reached a good ledge but was out of the gear I needed to set up an ideal anchor. I ended up having to make do with the options at my disposal and gave Tom a body belay with a good stance.
P4 Gillett: Climb around to the right and follow a series of flakes and corners on the west side, never straying too far from the prow, and move back left to a belay on the right side of the final rib.
I don't have a whole lot to say about this pitch. It was an easy but exposed traverse and largely uninspiring. I felt bad taking such a good pitch previously only to leave Tom with something so mundane, so I encouraged him to take the final impressive dihedral, which he accepted.
P5: Gillett: Follow a steep, right-facing dihedral splitting the rib, then move right and up to the top of the buttress, exposed 5.9+, some fixed gear.
If this pitch were longer it would be just as good as P3. Fun stemming moves leads to a splitter cupped hands crack with blank faces on either sides. Jamming with all 4 limbs takes you onto a nice ledge just below the final obstacle of the route. Tom protected the roof with a #4, took a deep breath, and pulled the roof in style.
Tom about to pull over the final roof
While seconding the last pitch just below the roof, I took one last look at the buttress from above. This was the first really good opportunity to see the route in its entirety from above.
A birds eye view of the Flying Buttress just below the final roof
The descent involved following an exposed ledge system to a somewhat loose 3rd class gully. I had learned my lesson from my previous two outings and packed my approach shoes this time, so I thought that the descent was perfectly fine. After briefly overshooting our packs, we packed up and made the long trek back to the car, satisfied with a great day out.
The Flying Buttress in late afternoon
My thoughts on the climb:
While The Flying Buttress is certainly an excellent alpine route, I don't think it's quite deserving of 4 stars. The ledges make for great belays but they also make the route feel disjointed. The wandering nature of the pitches takes away from what could be an impressively aesthetic line. I think the route would be much better if you are willing to tackle the more stout difficulties by keeping the route directly on the prow.
Many of the cracks seem to be inwardly flaring which makes for tricky placements, especially stoppers, though offset nuts and the occasional RP were usefu to havel. We took a single set of C3's with and a few other micro cams, plus double C4's from .5 to 2, triples of #3 and a #4. The triples #3's were not strictly necessary, but we ended up using them on the fist crack pitches. A confident leader at the grade could skip a #4, but it was nice to have for the two roofs. The wandering nature of the routes makes rope drag really bad. Bring lots of slings and extend placements liberally or suffer.
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