Symmetry Spire: Durrance Ridge
Approach: 3-4 Hours
Rating: 5.7 III 1150'
Pitches: 6 or 7
It was Emile Newman's first big Teton climb. I borrowed Chris Perkins' rope because my only rope had a core shot and the new one hadn't yet come in the mail.
I picked Newman up at her house late, around 8:30. Symmetry Spire's proximity to Jenny Lake is deceiving, and although I'd read many accounts of people alerting others that the approach to Symmetry is way larger than it looks, I remained complacent because I wanted to sleep in. We decided to take the boat across the lake ($15 round trip) and thought we'd surely be down before 7:00pm when the last one leaves.
On the other side of the lake we got stuck in the hiking trail equivalent of the Mass Pike...gridlock. About ten minutes up trail the traffic thinned. We passed the turn onto the Horse Trail while we were talking and had to reverse, wasting about thirty minutes. We eventually found the hidden climbers trail and started up.
Surprise! Its a long way up to Symmetry Spire. The hike was big and steep. I ran out of water before we got on the wall. Emile said she brought two headlamps and extra batteries. I laughed because the winter prior we two and our friend Liza got stuck on top of Rendezvous Mountain and the sun went down and Emile was the only one who brought a headlamp, but then her batteries ran out and we had to take some out of her avalanche beacon to have any light whatsoever and then ski Rock Springs Bowl, a backcountry area, in the dark as a group of three and then hike back to the resort before drinking heavily at The Spur.
Newman was healthily nervous and it was 1:00pm by the time I stepped off to lead the first pitch. The rock was beautiful. Jack Durrance put up a number of climbs back in the day, perhaps most famously the classic route on Bear Lodge (named "Devil's Tower" by white people during the era when us white people saw nature as dangerous place to be conquered and not yet a romantic thing to be worshipped) that I'd climbed with Jordan Cerna earlier that year. Durrance had a knack for finding beautiful rock...
The lower crux was delightful and sported an old rusty piton that I dreamed was forged perhaps by a young Yvon Chouinard on some old anvil in the woods. By the time Newman showed up at the first belay her nerves had settled.
"This exactly what I needed, J."
And she was right. The next four pitches were sustained between beautiful belay ledges. There were moments of ecstatic beauty. Golden granite. Sections of fractured stone. Black and white striations and chartreuse lichen, just like Upper Exum. The orographic lift was causing weather over the Grand, but it stayed sunny and nice above us, just North. We were the only people on Symmetry Spire. Jenny Lake was way below. The boat was crossing back and forth. It was beautiful.
On the forth pitch I got of route a bit and into some stiffer, yet beautiful, climbing. At the top I found a great belay ledge with some old pitons and belayed Newman up. We flipped the rope and as I reached up to lead off onto the next pitch I pulled down a geometric rock about the size of a large brick. The rock fell directly onto our rope, Chris' rope, and split it nearly in two. The interior nylon bulged out white like fat seeping from a deep wound. "Fuck. Core shot." Newman gulped.
I tied a Butterfly to isolate the damaged part of the rope and then tied Newman in on the side closer to me. We'd just have to pitch the rest out in smaller chunks. Newman stuffed the rest of the rope in her pack and was nervous. I led up through a beautiful section of climbing and then, just at the crux of the climb I heard "That's me!" Shit. No more rope. The top of the climb was just fifteen feet above...I considered building an anchor just there in the steep black corner, but decided on something else. I was confident at the grade and knew the terrain just above Newman was low 5th class. I trusted her not to fall. Time to simul-climb!
"Newman, I need you to take me off belay, climb up fifteen feet, and not move until I yell 'On belay'"
"What? Are you sure."
"Yes, just do it."
"Okay, start climbing."
I felt the tension loosen and as she moved up I moved too. I topped out and found a nice live tree to belay from.
Newman topped out and was more nervous than I'd seen her that day.
"Yeah, that was just spooky. Like, the core shot and then whatever just happened there. I just had to, like, trust you."
She dove into an alcove and smiled a huge smile of relief. It started snowing a bit. We had a bit of 4th class scrambling ahead. "You wanna simul-climb the rest?"
"Sure. How do we do that?" I talked her through it, coiled most of the rest of the healthy rope onto my shoulder, and we took off up toward the exposed summit keeping a piece of protection between us at all times. "Placing" "Climbing" "Zero" "Clear" Placing Climbing Zero Clear PlacingClimbingZeroClear...
We made it to platform. A gendarme separated us from the rappel anchor. The East side looked like some more 5th class terrain that wasn't noted in the beta, so I checked the West side. Nope. East side it is. We weren't sure what to expect so I dropped all the coils and Newman put me on belay. It was a straightforward high 4th class traverse, but was hugely exposed, atop a gigantic cliff that dropped into an endless gully. I placed some protection to protect Newman's traverse. A short while later I found myself in a big grassy field and terrain belayed Newman across. Made it.
We talked nervously about the rappel, but then agreed, why aren't we drinking the beer we brought? There was no time crunch at this point. We weren't going to make the boat back across the lake, we were walking. We had headlamps. The weather was fine. Let's take some time to enjoy the summit.
A little while later we crushed the beer can and made our way to the top of the rappel to discuss options. We one had a 25m rappel ahead of us and 38m of good rope. That meant we couldn't really do a safe double rappel, since 38m divided in half is only 19m if the rope is doubled. I said we should probably just tie the rope to the rappel station, rappel down the good part of the rope, and leave it. A minute passed. I examined the damage for a bit and posited the idea of just rappelling over the damage. Newman examined it too, nervously agreed, but kept thinking...
And then started, "Why don't we just fucking fix the rope and rappel. Look, we're gonna have to buy Chris a new rope anyway. Its definitely unsafe to rappel over the damage. The only thing that should stop us from doing that is some LNT concern, which, in this case, shouldn't fucking calculate in. We should be safe."
She was right. "Yeah, you're right. Fuck it!"
I tied the rope to a locking carabiner, got on rappel, and rapped down to safety. Emile followed. We coiled the rest of the rope, stashed it to the side, and said goodbye and thank you to Chris' green rope.
We scrambled down the loose 4th class gully staying close to mitigate potential bodily damage by rockfall. Down in the main Symmetry drainage we picked up the climbers trail. It was 8:00pm and getting dark. Jenny Lake was getting sleepy. Elk were bugling. It felt like Autumn.
"This is so beautiful."
"Yeah. Its funny, except by accident I'd never think to come out in the Park at this time of day, but its just so beautiful."
"Yeah, its awesome."
We descended through some blooming Fireweed and picked up the main Cascade Canyon trail just as it got really dark. We walked the trail on the West side of Jenny back to our car at the South end of the lake and talked about climate change. I said I was done worrying about that kind of thing. I said I wasn't going to let fear inform how I think about things like that and Newman half agreed. She was leaving for Ecuador to do some research on Cacao pollination and it was good to hang for a day before her departure.