Getting on top of Buck Mountain was a goal Mike and I had set out for ourselves for sometime this season, and we both assumed we wouldn’t get a good chance to go for it until spring. However, consistent December snowfall, unusually low avalanche danger, and a week of calm weather in January gave us a great window to get up there earlier than expected. Views from a smaller peak in “The Park” revealed plenty of coverage on Buck, so we figured we couldn’t possibly pass up the opportunity to give it a go!
Knowing we had a couple miles of flat approach and 5500 feet of vert to climb, we had no choice but to get started early. So, shortly after dawn, we arrived at the trailhead, slapped on our skis/splitboard, and were on our way. Trying to shortcut the skin track and take a more direct route, we ended up weaving through dense forest coated in a foot of light, dry powder. After reaching the skin track again, we quickly discovered that it headed off in the wrong direction, and we set out on our own to break trail all the way up to Timberline Lake, at the base of Buck Mountain.
Our progress was slowed not only by the fact that we had to break trail, but also by my uncooperative, worn out splitboard skins. During the steepest part of the skin, one of my skins peeled off to the point where only the front third of it was still hanging onto the ski. If we hadn’t been breaking trail through relatively deep snow here, I don’t know if I would have been able to get to the top of the pitch the way it was. Once we found a flat spot to hang out, a couple Voile straps got everything back to normal, save a few awkward downhill skinning moments with one ski gliding and lots of extra traction on the other.
Making it through the final, difficult skin on wind-scoured snow to Timberline Lake at about 10,400 feet, we transitioned to crampons and ice axes while strong winds froze our fingers and filled our packs with drifting snow. Climbing up the steep slopes to the lower part of the ridge, we were pleased to find firm wind-packed snow, which allowed for a nice combination of boot penetration (kicking steps up) and crampon bite. An ice axe shaft could be plunged in fully with relatively little effort in most places, and the dense snow provided great support for self-belay.
The first half of the ridge was relatively easy, and our proximity to the summit was starting to get us excited. We were treated to excellent views of the Grand Teton and other well known mountains from all points on the ridge, and made relatively quick progress upward.
We had seen a group of three people ahead of us, and at this point we noticed that they were downclimbing off of the ridge onto the main East Face, and booting up the mountain via the typical ski descent. This route would have made me uneasy with uncertain snow conditions, as we knew the snow was firm and the runout below them ended in 800 foot cliffs. In retrospect, however, the route worked out well for them as the snow was just barely soft enough for them to kick steps in, and they ended up making it to the summit just a few minutes before we did.
The second half of the ridge, however, was an entirely different story from the first. The majority was knife-edge, with 2000+ foot cliffs on one side and a steep, 60-70 degree snow slope terminating in large cliffs on the other. To stay secure against the gusty winds, we traveled slowly either straddling the ridge with one leg hanging over either side (as there was zero cornice development), or painstakingly kicking steps when it seemed like a reasonable option. In a couple places, we were forced to climb short sections of rock in order to stay on top of the ridge, as we were not willing to traverse the steeps below in many places.
The last 10-15 minutes involved simply booting up the prominent snow ramp to the summit. Here, we met the party of three we had been watching all along, and discovered that they were visiting from Colorado. Turned out they had approached Buck from the northeast (Avalanche Canyon), while we had approached from the southeast (Static Draw) and parked at the other trailhead.
Descending, we took the same route that the Colorado folks had taken up to the summit. As it turned out, the slopes before the cliffs flattened more than we had thought, and we felt quite safe skiing down the firm snow despite the exposure. Regardless, I elected to snowboard with axe in hand, as we hadn’t yet felt the snow down there for ourselves. At this point, we had been climbing for about 8 hours, and the ski descent back down to the car was the last thing on our minds. Our legs were shot, and our goal for the day had already been met. Firm snow covered the upper half of the mountain, but the bottom half was still soft. Never before have I had so little enthusiasm for snowboarding when faced with a few thousand vertical feet of dry powder….but the prospects of sitting down in a warm car and eating a big dinner dominated my thoughts.
Taking the convenient, graded snow road back to the car, a quick transition to ski mode allowed me to skate the mostly downhill track back to the car relatively quickly. The sun was setting, and everything around me glowed orange as I made my way through the forest. Back at the car, Mike and I indulged in abundant artificial heat, and were both beyond stoked to have made it up Buck this early in the season!