Why Slog When You Can Ride?

Christian Santelices climbs Saxifrage (5.9) above Corbet

Christian Santelices climbs Saxifrage (5.9) above Corbet

Cable-car climbing in Jackson Hole

Steep switchbacks, talus-filled basins, and long, slogging hikes are synonymous with climbing in the Tetons of Wyoming. The approach typically takes twice the time as the route, and the crags in the Teton area are generally low-lying and sweltering in the summer season. But there are exceptions.

The Jackson Hole Mountain Resort is best known for its skiing, but a lesser-known fact is that the slopes hold high-quality rock. And it’s easier to access than you may think.

For that, you can thank Jackson Hole’s Aerial Tram, North America’s favorite ski lift. In summer, local climbers use it to reach two crags high above the valley floor: Rock Springs Buttress, featuring a reddish granitic gneiss, and the dolomite walls cradling the famous Corbet’s Couloir and S&S ski runs.

Rock Springs Buttress is a quarter-mile wide and close to 600 feet tall. Once the tram kicks you off at the top terminal, you can hike down the hill to the crag in less than an hour. This buttress currently boasts a few dozen single- and multi-pitch sport and trad routes on a pristine wall at 9,000 feet elevation, with more going in each year.

Local all-around sandbagger Greg Collins, responsible for several Buttress routes, likens the experience to the French Alps: “When climbers think about the best cable-car-accessed rock climbing on earth, they think about the Aguille du Midi above Chamonix, France. But this is cable-car-accessed rock climbing that the French would be very happy with.”

While some of the original routes have been around for 20 years, the area has been developed more rapidly in the last 10. The crag is most suited to experienced climbers, with a high concentration of 5.11 and 5.12 routes, but there are quality 5.10 lines as well. The Doug Coombs memorial climb, Do it for Doug (5.10b), features airy exposure with excellent pro. There are few moderate routes — Tolle Road (5.8) can be done in two long pitches — but they take good gear and are great options for aspiring new leaders. On the other end of the spectrum, Collins’ testpiece, Sole Superpower (5.13), is “the best flat wall in the area,” he says.

Zahan Billimoria climbs Do it for Doug (5.10b), Rock Springs Buttress. Photo by Mark Fisher

Zahan Billimoria climbs Do it for Doug (5.10b), Rock Springs Buttress. Photo by Mark Fisher

I’m not a 5.12 climber. I’m also lazy. So the five-minute walk from the tram to the other Jackson Hole crag, Corbet’s, suits me better. Here, there is a greater variety of grades, with many challenging options, and the walls yield “compact, pocketed sport climbing on dense, bone-white rock,” in Collins’ words. Sitting above 10,000 feet, the climbs are ideal for escaping the valley heat in summer. I’ve spent many afternoons climbing with friends in the high alpine terrain at Corbet’s, while gazing down 4,000 feet to the valley below. High Boltage (5.7) is the perfect opener: airy and steep, the climb follows the exposed arête of the buttress separating Jackson Hole’s two most infamous ski runs.

The Beta:

Price: A round-trip tram ticket costs $20 for early season (May 29 – June 18); $25 for peak season (June 19 – September 26).

Climate: June through early October is the best for Rock Springs Buttress as it faces south, coming into the sun mid-morning and remaining warm most of the day. When summer valley heat reaches the high 80s, the cooler temps at the 10,400-foot-high Corbet’s sport climbs are a good idea. Spring weather in Jackson can be warm, and savvy climbers ski down to Rock Springs Buttress on sunny March afternoons to get in a few pitches before the snow melts off the slopes.

Camping: Jackson Hole Campground is closest, about seven miles south from Teton Village on Hwy 390 ($35/night, jacksonholecampground.com). There is plenty of free camping on Bridger-Teton National Forest land, such as Shadow Mountain and Curtis Canyon. Both locations, however, are far from the resort and require a lot of driving to reach any climbing. The Grand Teton Climber’s Ranch is a 20-minute drive north, located in Grand Teton National Park. The cabins are co-ed, barebones bunks with indoor plumbing, a central cooking pavilion, extensive climbing library, showers, and community washer/dryer. If you’re a member of the American Alpine Club, nights at the Ranch cost $10 ($20 for non-members).

Guidebook: Jackson Hole Sport Climbing, Edition II by Forest Dramis ($12.50, tetonclimbing.com) and A Climber’s Guide to the Teton Range: Third Edition by Leigh Ortenburger and Renold Jackson ($39.95, mountaineersbooks.com)

Getting There: From the town of Jackson, take Hwy 22, turn right (north) on Hwy 390 and drive eight miles to Teton Village. From Grand Teton National Park, take the Moose-Wilson Road (Hwy 390), which avoids all the congestion in the town of Jackson. Once at Teton Village, there are two options to access Rock Springs Buttress. Hike In: Park in the upper “Steigler” lot and follow the service road out Union Pass Traverse to the southern end of the resort below the “Hobacks” ski runs; the trail turns into a single-track climber’s trail heading into Rock Springs Canyon. Follow the trail up to the Buttress. Tram: From the top terminal, walk down Rendezvous Bowl Trail to the bottom of the bowl. Turn right at a small sign leading into Rock Springs Canyon. Follow the trail southeast for 15 minutes till you see the Buttress. It’s a bit longer, but easier, to walk out, so it’s not necessary to hike back up to the tram terminal to get back to the valley floor.

Rest Day Entertainment: Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks are obvious for sightseeing and spotting wildlife or taking a dip in several of the Parks’ easily accessed lakes.

Food: Jackson has several high-end restaurants, but The Betty Rock Café is best for delicious, affordable comfort food. Vegetarians welcome. Snatch bagels and coffee at Pearl St. Bagels. Two blocks away, grab beers at the Snake River Brew Pub.


Tram Area

  • High Boltage (5.7) — fantastic, exposed arête between the classic Corbet’s Couloir and S&S ski runs

  • Saxifrage (5.9) — straight up, steep moderate on sharp limestone

  • Nature Hike (5.11R) — sustained, with steep pockets and fun sequences

Rock Springs Buttress:

  • Jackson Hole Mountain Guides Route (aka Tolle Road) (5.8) — good trad route for aspiring leaders

  • Do It For Doug (5.10b) — five pitches, each gains difficulty and quality

  • Big Wally Route (5.11) — named after infamous JHMR patroller, completed this past winter by Collins and Hans Johnstone

  • Gray Wall (5.11d) — mixed sport and trad. Warm up on stout sport pitches before the cerebral third pitch and overhanging crux on pitch four

  • Grand Central (5.12) — stout sport wall, with a beautiful sustained crux on big holds