I’m one to get sucked into climbing plans pretty easily, within reason, so when Brian told me about how he wanted to climb West Pawnee Butte I had mixed reactions. The Maroon Bells are the prize of the Rockies while Longs Peak is the prize of the Front Range. The Pawnee Buttes are the prize of the East part of Colorado. You thought everything was flat out east? The Pawnee Buttes jut out a few hundred feet off the ground to the interesting summits. There is nothing around so it creates such a great “tower.” I’m obsessed with that sort of climbing so that already interested me. When Brian told me it’s a very rare summit, I was in. That’s all he had to say for me to go.
Pawnee Butte (West Pawnee Butte is on the left while East Pawnee Butte is in the distance on the right)
For those of you that have not been there or seen any pictures, there are two of the interesting formations. The East Pawnee Butte is a great outing with a moderate 4th class route to the top. It’s really not that bad. There are chopped footholds into the slightly less then vertical face that allow sort of a ladder. It’s not as easy as it sounds though and a fall would not be good, just like the usual fourth class. A fun scramble for sure.
West Pawnee Butte. Our route went straight up the middle of the face.
I started researching real in depth on West Pawnee Butte. I found nothing. Nothing was showing at all so I asked Brian how we were even going to get up this thing. It would be different if it was a nice granite crack but it wasn’t and we would have to attack this formation like nothing we have experienced. The rock or should I say mud is flat out the worse rock I have ever encountered. It is twenty times worse then the Fisher Towers mud rock and not even comparable to any other Colorado rock. With the slightest touch, the rock would fracture off. I don’t mean small, I mean a boulder would fracture out of the wall and fall down into pieces. It’s hard to describe how I couldn’t even trust my feet as the rock would fracture and break off. Every handhold, big or small, would come off the face like it was not attached. Brian and I knew free climbing this was not happening. We would have to aid climb it as the only feasible way up. We knew rock gear was useless. I brought a few pitons along with mud beaks (peckers) but knew that would be useless. We had to use something that would drive several inches into the mud to at least hold our body weight. With that idea we brought nine inch nails as our hope.
The anchor I made to belay Brian up. 9 inch nails!
The West Pawnee Butte was first ascended in 1909 with looong ladders by the Weld County Fire Department. After that it saw about 6 ascents. The land used to be closed to the public so you had to ask for permission before the 1970's to go there. The last known ascent was in 1970 by two kids that at the time knew nothing about climbing. They spent weeks trying to find a route until spotting a route that had old fixed gear in it from one of the earlier ascents. They spent many more trips chopping steps to get to that vertical portion that had the fixed gear in it and finally made it to the top with just pulling on the gear without any knowledge of how to belay. They were told by the local ranch owner to be the Seventh party to climb it. Who knows how many ascents it's seen or if it's been climbed in the winter.
The crux. A bit scary even looking at it. The clay like rock was horrendous.
This was a serious undertaking. We actually got a hold of the guy that did it in 1970. He stated he did it with a friend and had no climbing experience. He stated there was “gear” in place from the earlier ascents when he did it and that he chopped footholds up to get to the actual face. The two guys climbed it and down climbed it without the knowledge of using a rope. He stated difficulties were in between 5.2 and 5.7 but it was hard for him to know since he was inexperienced at the time. The guy then quoted that he went up there a couple years ago visiting and stated all that fixed gear was gone.
Brian and I finally made Wednesday work. Now, I know some of you might get upset with the nailing ethics we did on this but clean aid is simply impossible on this route as there is not one crack anywhere. Nailing had to be done to create a slightly less dangerous ascent. The gear we brought for this climb was an ice axe, crampons, 8 9 inch nails, hammer, tie offs, 4 ½ inch angle pitons, 4 mud beaks (peckers), 1 Lost Arrow, 2 Bugaboos, aid gear, and many many screamers. We brought a couple stoppers and tri cams just in case.
West Pawnee Butte
We left Loveland carpooling at about 10 A.M. We started hiking to the Buttes at about 12 in the afternoon. We didn’t make the trailhead due to the snow so we parked and hiked straight to them on our own trail. It was strenuous post holing almost the whole way. This place is in the middle of no where. I love that feeling of being in somewhere remote. When we got close to West Pawnee Butte we were intimidated. It was big and it looked horribly sketchy. We went around trying to spot a weakness to start up a new route. The only weakness we saw was a “smaller” cliff then the rest. When we got closer to it we saw there was still fixed stuff on it! I was happy and thought this would go fast.
Taken on the rappel of the route. Still a little exposure.
I was so happy indeed that I asked to take the lead. Then I was regretting asking to take it. This pitch looked way harder then 5.6. Since 1969, it has eroded even more causing the wall to actually be overhanging and all the fixed gear was anywhere from ½ way to ¾ of the way hanging out! I got all racked up and headed up. To get to the overhanging bit you have to go up about 40 to 50 feet of 60 to 80 degree mud. I tried going up without chopping steps trying to avoid what the past ascents have done but I about took a fall from the fracturing rock which would have been bad. I chopped very tiny footholds that I still did not trust. I could see one or two of the chopped ones that had been covered up a little from decades ago. When it got steeper I swung the ice axe into the rock as a “handhold.” It was dinner plating and fracturing at every swing as I was sweating bullets with my feet feeling like there about to slip off. By this time, I was brown, covered in dirt. I actually had to put on my goggles to keep it out of my eyes. I finally got to the overhanging wall. The climb up to the first piece was very spicy as I was a bit off the deck. The first piece was a nail. I don’t know how far it was into the mud but it was hanging out about 8 inches. I tied it off to aid but the bad thing was that it was nailed at an upwards angle so if I fell I felt like the tie off would of slide it's way down and off.
The first piece......
I grabbed it and tested it feeling happy to grab something that was not going to peel off or so I thought. It was moving. I attached my aiders to it and stared at it with big eyes. The next piece was a piton that was also hanging out more then halfway. It moved big time when I touched it.
The sketchness continues. The second piece.
Common sense told me I could pull it out easily so I kept most of my weight on the first piece and a little weight on the piton reaching as fast as possible to the next piton. I attached a screamer to it along with the rope. Mentally, I felt better with the more pieces I clipped. I stepped up very carefully and as fast as possible, scared. I then reached up fast and clipped the next piton also hanging out but kind of solid.
Would it hold a fall? (As I grab it and move it)
The final two pieces were far apart so free climbing was demanded in the 5.6 or so range. It was a nail peaking out 9 inches or so moving around in circles. I free climbed around that. The final piton was the scariest. It was hanging out very far (few inches). I also saw that the end of it was half way eroded off! Meaning was it even in the rock or even separated into two pieces? I stood there for a many minutes asking myself why am I here and how stupid this is and was of me. I stared back at Brian afraid. If I fell it would be a ground fall as all the pieces would surely rip out and that might be the last one I would ever take. There was also a good distance between the last two pieces. I drove in a pecker and tested it but it fractured the rock around and ripped out. The Nails would not drive in as the rock was not right. Scared, I committed and made the move and finally got to an alcove.
The climbing was over. Now I had to get Brian up. Anchor? Right, about that. I drove 3 nails into the mud and equalized them. There were also 3 nails driven straight into the grass. I think they reached into the ground. I tested them many times putting a jolt on them with my aiders and they were “solid” but moving. I had 6 pieces of protection and that’s as solid as the anchor could be. I told Brian to go up slowly and carefully. This anchor was sketchy.
How is he still smiling? ;)
He soon joined me with big eyes telling me that is was terrifying following it. We did a loose 3rd class climb with exposure up to the final scramble to the top.
Brian about to make the final scramble to the summit
When we got there we had a great feeling.
Myself on the summit on top of our homemade carin and summit register
East Pawnee Butte from the top
There was no sign from anyone in the past. It felt great to be on such a rare summit. Stepping on the summit felt like such an accomplishment. I made a carin while Brian broke out a new summit register that was an old army ammo can. We wrote comments in it and placed some stuff in it. Maybe someday someone else will do it. We had no desire to do it again at least leading it that is. We were scared also because we had to get down and what about our rappel?
Check out our rappel anchor. There moving but solid?
We scrambled down very carefully down to the anchor. Even that was pretty sketchy. We had the new anchor back up the old one on the rappel. I rappelled off the old one basically. If it failed, then the new one would come into effect. I don’t know if I have ever trusted my weight to something this scary. Brian then cleaned everything after the old one was still “good.” It was still moving but nothing was solid on this. He came down with big eye’s repeating,” it’s a double bolt anchor, it’s a double bolt anchor.”
Myself still rappeling while Brian is wanting me to hurry up.
We were so happy to be down. So happy that went the extra distance and climbed the, what felt to be solid now, East Pawnee Butte. Beautiful fourth class to the top! Down climbing it was also very interesting as it was icy and snowy. Soon we made our way back to the car at sunset with full happiness of a Pawnee Butte day.
East Pawnee Butte
Brian on the fourth class crux
Myself on the summit of East Pawnee Butte with West Pawnee Butte behind
Brian on the summit
May you find your own adventures!