Little Cottonwood Canyon harbors the finest collection of granite rock climbing in Utah, and many of the routes are user-friendly, with short approaches and quality moves. The rock is almost as good as Yosemite, and was developed during a similar era, the late 1950s through the ‘80s. Spring and fall, or early mornings are the best time to get on the classic routes. Here are 5 of the best, ranging from moderate to difficult.
Bongeater is a highly visible, one pitch-tall buttress standing directly above the Little Cottonwood Park and Ride Lot. It’s the lowest granite formation in the canyon. West of it is broken mudstone that the Gate Buttress granite thrust its way up through. An uber-classic 5.10d crack route of the same name attracts most climbers to the crag. Many have climbed the strenuous pitch hundreds of times. Its a superb training venue for 5.10 and harder crack climbing anywhere.
Contrary to what some may think, the route did not get its name from a smoking apparatus. Its called Bongeater because early climbers used a large type of piton called a “bong bong,” rather than modern camming devices (which didn’t exist until about 1980) to protect the leader. They were placed sideways, especially in the widest, steepest top part of the crack, where leaders now often place cams up to size 5 (inches). The crack “ate” bongs if you pounded them in too far. This off-width is the crux portion of the pumpy route. Some climbers actually prefer to lie-back this relatively short finish, and run it out without protection (“pro” for short).
Long-time Salt Lake climber and former mayor, Ted Wilson, did not make the first ascent but was involved in early attempts in the 1960s. He remembers that they found ways to protect the first, hand-width portion of the route and many climbed it, but didn’t top out. “Everyone was intimidated by the overhanging, wide finish” he said. In those days, 5.9 was the hardest rating, but all of them knew this final bit was a REALLY stout 5.9! The need for higher ratings was becoming obvious.
Steve Ellsworth brought the first bong bongs back from Yosemite, the granite climbing mecca, and in 1964 Lenny Nelson and Warren Marshall got the first ascent. However, they actually weighted the protection. It wasn’t until ‘74 that legendary rock pioneer, George Lowe, and innovative climber/gear designer, Pete Gibbs fought their way up the difficult line without any aid, for the first free ascent. Their challenge was not lessened by having pre-placed bong bongs in the crack. The ethic of those times in the USA was for the follower to “clean” whatever pitons or other pro you placed on a route. In more recent times, pounded in pitons have been left in place.
In Europe, even in the 1960s, pitons and any other non-removable pro were always left in. For instance, on the Joe Brown Crack in Chamonix, Wilson remembers that blocks of wood had been pounded into the wide crack for protection, sometimes closer together than one body-length. This made it easy to “clip and go” and climb much harder than by placing pro on lead. “Sport Climbing” eventually evolved out of the concept of having pre-placed pro. It made good sense in soft limestone and other rock types where drilling holes and placing bolts was the only sane way to protect. Sport climbing has allowed climbers to push themselves gymnastically with little risk. It has ushered in the modern era of hard climbing, even in alpine environments.
Fin Arete Friction Fest
Creeping further above the bolt and away up onto a featureless face, I had a dilemma. Should I move my solid foot or cross over with the second foot? I chose to move the solid foot, and suddenly I lost traction. AAAHHHH! I screamed as I slid down the smooth granite of the 5.10b/c crux. Once the rope and my belayer caught my fall, I was no longer scared. I was intact, except tiny blood blisters on my fingertips, and I was determined to get the crux move. When I tried the crossover technique, I stuck to the smooth wall, and inched on up to the next bolt. What a stoked moment!
I was on pitch 1 of the Fin Arete, a classic friction climb located above the Mormon Archives, west of the Thumb in Little Cottonwood. It requires a bushwhacky approach in order to stay clear of the access road to the archive, where genealogical records are stored. This beautiful, rounded buttress is on private land, and the LDS Church-owned road is strictly off-limits to climbers. But as long as climbers respect the rules, we are allowed to scale one of the most aesthetic ridges in the canyon.
The Fin harbors some high-quality climbing moves, but it demands slab-climbing skills. There are very few positive holds on the entire 3-pitch line. One must learn to “float” up slabs, or non-vertical rock walls. Rather than catering to strong, gymnastic climbers, this type of route calls for patience, attention to detail, and subtle technique. Minute variations in texture and steepness render one spot a positive foothold, and make other places slippery. Leading is a head game, not a physical battle. You want confidence and steady, deliberate movements. Some leaders are driven mad. Others relish the mental challenge.
The second pitch involves a small roof, that is easy to vault over, and a short crack where you can place a medium-sized stopper for protection. It’s easy to fade right here and end up on the more difficult Dorsal Fin. Stay left instead, even though it appears blank, and move from one small nob (aka chicken head) to the next, clipping the widely spaced bolts along the way.
The final pitch tracks along a spectacular and easily climbed prow with no protection for the last 50 feet. If you’ve chosen to ascend this west-facing classic in the morning to beat the summer heat, you’ll now come into the sun. It actually feels pretty good after the shady lower pitches, and it’s not too hot on the airy arete. Then you go back into the shade and rappel to the west.
Bushwhack Crack to Schoolroom
Superb stone and a wide variety of techniques, from off-width cracks, to double-cracks, to friction traversing, lie-back, jamming, and a squeeze chimney, make this 5-pitch offering a signature climb of the Gate Buttress. On the first (easy) pitch, the leader must figure out how to protect a follower on a descending traverse. The second lead is a leaning crack where feet and hands must be jammed. It protects well with #1 and 2 cams and makes a great introduction to the traditional climbing skill of crack jamming.
My favorite alternative to these two pitches is to start on the “splitter” Bushwhack route, a truly magnificent 5.8 crack. It favors medium to small feet so that you can get more than just your toes into the foot jams. The hardest moves are at the start, but it remains tenuous, and the ankles will be screaming if they’re not used to being stood on. Tape may be used to protect the knuckles and backs of hands. A short, but poorly protected traverse left on pancake-shaped chicken heads brings you to the 3rd belay on the standard Schoolroom.
The third pitch is a joy as delicate moves in shallow seams bring one to dark- colored chicken heads. Old piton scars and natural constrictions accept small to medium stoppers for ample protection. One has the choice between two cracks, but trending left is standard. It finishes at a big flake with nice views of the follower and lower Little Cottonwood.
The fourth pitch has two distinct parts. First is a body-width wide slot that can be slippery, strenuous and awkward for the 5.5 grade, especially for a large person. Smaller folks can press feet and hands on one side, while bracing against an opposite shoulder and back. It’s a relief to emerge onto the second portion, a friction traverse under a spectacular overhang.
Confidence in your sticky rubber, and an eye for small ledges makes this go smoothly, but the leader must place more pro than necessary for themselves such that the follower would not swing in a pendulum if they fall. It’s also important not to keep the rope too taut and pull the second out of balance.
Now you can choose the Movie Variation finish (5.8), involving an undercling lieback traverse to the right. It’s short, strenuous, well protected and gratifying to complete. I usually belay just above the crux moves before finishing on the easy wide crack above. The standard finish is a fun double-crack with good cam and stopper placements and sticky, slightly gritty stone. A couple rappels and a walk down with a few class 3 moves completes a great 5-hour loop.
Even before I learned to climb, I used to notice a pointy-head of rock resting on the shoulders of the longest sweep of clean rock in Little Cottonwood as I drove down from skiing. Once I learned the art of natural-protection leading, I was drawn to the largest feature in the world-class Gate Buttress climbing area. Finally, one September day, after a hot summer of avoiding south-facing granite, I decided it was cool enough to take a strong client up the uber-classic Thumb.
In the chilly morning, focused on finding the base, I forgot to sunscreen my ears. As it got hot, high on the cliff, I chose not to for fear of making my fingers grease off the holds. Sun blisters formed on my ear rims and stayed for a decade, becoming battle scars to remember the Thumb by. But I never again neglected to sunblock my ears!
Like many classic routes that beckon from afar, the actual moves are less aesthetic than the formation. Two loose, slippery chimney pitches start the route. Then one can escape right into double cracks on the Indecent Exposure variation to avoid more chimney groveling. Despite some Gambel Oaks in the crack, the moves are fun here, and soon your reach the huge, water-eroded “lunch ledge.”
If you don’t get rained off here, as I did in mid-October of 2004, at the start of a 100-inch storm cycle in Alta, you have two distinct choices for the upper Thumb. Newschoolers, seeking a friction challenge, dig the S-Direct. But it’s known for dangerous runouts, far above protection, on thin moves. A fall can be hell on the ankles.
The Trough Pitches above Lunch Ledge “make” the original route, according to guidebook authors Bret and Stuart Ruckman. I wondered what they meant after I struggled up these flaring chimneys. They suck you in looking for protection and positive holds. Finding neither, you work back out to the edge. Here you can sling a blunt horn and get some decent body stems. You can even rest your butt on one side, while you brace with your feet on the other. I always tell my follower they will climb more elegantly than I have, and they usually do. Confident with a rope above, they stay well out of the squeeze chimney and dance up using cross-pressure with feet and hands. The proper chimney technique.
Several hundred feet of class 3 and 4 scrambling lead to a fun, short, airy pitch to the final pinnacle. No one will regret the effort when they enjoy the view and position of the Thumb itself. Since its usually my last climb of the fall, my eyes often turn east toward Lone Pine at Snowbird and the Birthday Chutes in White Pine, where the first snows of a new winter invite me to the next ski season.
Tingey’s Ten Pitch
Perhaps the finest full-day moderate climb at the Gate Buttress is the Tingey’s Terror/Torture link-up on the far east side of the formation. Start on the Sweet Jane variation to Tarzan, with its 5.7 crack moves to wake you up. Move up through cracks and some tenuous friction moves to Fudd Ledge and have a bite to eat. Once I saw a party with a tent pitched here. Training for big wall climbing?
Variations abound as Tingey’s Torture, the newer portion extends above. I go right to an airy, right leaning lie-back/friction crack where you wouldn’t want to pitch off, because it falls away steeply to the east. A pleasant, shady alcove provides the next belay.
Some easy climbing leads to a series of fun mantles from one chicken head to the next with thin friction in between. Strategically placed bolts keep it safe and sane for a 5.8 leader, but the diverse and surprising challenges keep coming. Every pitch has quality moves that are on the grade. The belays are good, but mostly very sunny. A good route for spring or fall, and one that dries quickly after a storm.
A fun, 5.6 crack is one good option as you move up past the midpoint. Then there is a 5.8 friction arete; the hardest-rated climbing on the route. But, if you trust your feet, its not too hard, and the bolts are frequent. One day it began to rain lightly as I chalked up for this pitch. That upped the ante! Not a good place for rain, wind or worst of all, electrical storm. You are about 800 feet above the canyon floor on a protruding ridge.
One last lead of crystals and chicken heads of various shapes high above the canyon completes the climb: 9 or 10 pitches of fun, scenic and interesting moves. But the enjoyment is not over if you like rappelling. Two slightly awkward rapps over a couple off-fall-line rock steps lead to the east. The third rapp descends a smooth, overhanging wall. Most people get a great thrill from the free-hanging rapp where feet can’t reach the wall. A couple more rapps get you most of the way down on the east edge of the Gate Buttress, and easy scrambling back to the road.