Four years ago I found myself alone in the Utah desert with an unanticipated day to fill and, naturally, the peakbagger in me scrambled to find a few summits to occupy myself with. Having done no research and armed with nothing but my Trails Illustrated maps, I settled on exploring a few named peaks that caught my attention deep in the southern half of the San Rafael Swell.
One of those randomly selected peaks was the amiable sounding Family Butte. The name conjured up images of a rather unexciting mound suitable for a family sort of outing. I set out from Hanksville toward the Swell assuming it'd be an easy half hour job. As I bumped along the many miles of dirt road specified by my map a jagged formation began looming on the horizon. What could that be?
The road led me closer and closer to this oddity, and at some point it finally dawned on me that Family Butte is so named because the gnarly towers of varying heights of which it is composed resemble members of a family. Upon this revelation I laughed to myself at the absurdity of my intentions of climbing it but continued driving so I could get a closer look at the spectacle. Neighboring UN 6,755 served as my consolation prize.
Fast forward two years. A party of choss afficionados led by Paul Ross puts up an aid route to the top of the tallest family member, the mother, and posts a short description on Mountain Project. This is the first reference to a route up Family Butte that I have stumbled on and it gets me quite excited. The first ascensionists give the three pitch line a modest 5.7 C2 rating, but cognizant of the hideous rock quality of the Swell I'm not exactly chomping at the bit to try to repeat it. Family Butte is left to simmer on the back burner...
Nearly two years have gone by and the clock continues to tick for the bolts that were installed on the route. I am clueless as to how long hardware typically lasts in such soft sandstone, but I'd rather not have to speculate. It just so happens that Dom & I are currently itching for a desert adventure and now that we've got the Kingfisher under our belts, Family Butte surfaces for consideration. A last minute email to and quick reply from Paul eases any remaining doubts and we head out to the Swell Friday night.
The hike to the base of Family Butte Saturday morning is short and sweet, even with a shitload of aid gear. As we hike along the base of the south face, the start of the route is easily identified by a grungy chimney on the tallest tower that leads to an offwidth crack.
Dom, offwidth master that he is, racks up and launches into the chimney. Let the dirt shower begin.
Twenty feet of dirty 5.7 rock lead to harder climbing. While he could continue free climbing past this point, the poor rock quality makes aiding a safer and much more attractive option. Out come the etries.
Within a matter of minutes it becomes apparent that our single #5 & #6 cams aren't exactly sufficient. The offwidth section is wider and much longer than we'd imagined and our pair of #4's are practically useless. What could be a straightforward C1 cruise is instead a tricky and somewhat risky endeavor. I cringe as Dominic repeatedly does kneebars to bump up the #5, the only piece keeping him off the deck. I suggest we bail, drive to Moab to buy more big cams, and return tomorrow but the response is only lukewarm. Tucking myself into the chimney to hide from the falling choss, I can only hope for the best.
Finally Dominic reaches a flake alongside the wide crack that will take smaller gear but it sounds so hollow that it offers little mental reprieve. I don't know who is happier when he clips the first solid bolt near the top of the pitch. Whew. After arriving at the sloping belay ledge he fixes a rope for me to jug.
Unfortunately there's no rest for Dom; we're up against the crux and I am no C2 leader. Pitch two begins with a short and relatively easy traverse to climbers left to reach a thin crack in a right facing corner. The protection here is small cams and whether its better to aid or free climb this bit is unclear. What is the probability of a cam blowing on aid versus a hold breaking while free climbing? In either case the outcome will be the same, a penduluming fall directly onto the anchor.
Unfortunately life doesn't improve after getting established in the corner. The first placement off the ledge is a small cam. Again I cringe as he weights this tenuous piece that is the only thing keeping him off the deck. He places a larger .5 cam above and the lower cam breaks the rock and shifts as soon as he begins transferring his weight onto the upper one. Crunch.
After a few slightly more respectable placements and even a humongous #4 its off to tiny cam land, as in zero and double zero. Dominic finesses those buggers remarkably well and finds a new lifelong friend in our blue alien. I'm still a bit nervous but he is apparently having a gay old time up there. Occasionally I even hear him giggling to himself as he marvels at how those little guys are holding his weight. Every one blows out a little bit of rock and settles as he weights it! How does he have the stomach for this?
After many tiny cam and nut placements a larger crack appears to the left and Dom relays how luxurious it feels to place a #1. Ironically, as soon as he weights that "bomber" piece the rock explodes. Even though I'm not looking up at the time, the shower of rock and his vocalizations clue me in on what is happening. He's falling. Rockfall prohibits me from looking up, and I'm puzzled and concerned about not being able to feel him on the rope yet. Why the hell is he falling so far? I've never caught an aid fall and it doesn't even cross my mind that he has fallen onto his aider, not the rope. Somehow a seemingly crappy #5 nut has stopped his violent fall onto a static daisy chain. I think the event leaves me more shaken than him!
Dominic gets right back on the horse, tries again, and soon reaches a very welcome bolt. At this point the aiding become more difficult, the placements all small, finicky, and seemingly right on the edge. Thankfully the first ascent party equipped this section with a bolt every 5-6 placements so a fall here would be relatively safe. The delicate process is time consuming but uneventful. After reaching the semi-hanging belay anchor Dom once again fixes a rope for me to jug. It takes a lot of hammering to clean the #5 nut that has become more or less welded into the soft rock during his fall, but it pops free just as I'm about to give up.
The final semi-hanging belay is not comfortable and when I rejoin Dominic its obvious he's a hurting unit. The battle has left him quite exhausted and his feet are screaming after hours of life in rocks shoes. I had hoped to lead the third, final and easiest pitch but now I reconsider. Its only rated 5.6 C1 and is supposedly mostly a bolt ladder but in all honestly the rock quality is getting to me. Also weighing in on the decision is the fact that Dom really needs to get out of this painful position. The process of waiting for me to change into rock shoes on this precarious little ledge and then timidly aid up the final pitch at a noobish pace is probably a worse prospect than just cruising the easy pitch himself and ripping his shoes off on the comfy summit. I bow out.
The final pitch starts with a short traverse right over major air. Well whatdya know, small cams here too. Double zero to the rescue. The moves to the first bolt are trivial, but of course the seemingly bomber foothold Dominic steps on calves off immediately. Hah! He lucks out and manages to catch himself before testing the double zero placement off the anchor. Apparently we're getting a little loopy because both of us find this episode quite comical.
After reaching the bolt ladder Dominic makes quick work of it and finds only one bolt that has started to deteriorate. For some reason transitioning from aid to free climbing mid pitch usually feels awkward. Dom pauses for a bit at the end of the bolts before announcing he's coming out of his aiders and going for it. A minute later he's on the summit and I join him shortly thereafter.
Family Butte! The views of San Rafael Knob and Block Top are particularly good from here. The summit register, left by the first ascent party twelve years ago, contains signatures from a mere three parties. The first two climbed a single pitch route on the north side, and the third put up the longer line that we just climbed on the south side. Paul is nearly certain that Dom & I made the 2nd ascent of his south side route, which is kinda cool I guess. The tops of the other family members can all be seen from atop the mother's head and they all have their own anchors and summit registers.
Dominic is very anxious to be reunited with the beer cooler and has already been busy working on webbing replacement when I arrive. Three nice bolts serve as the top anchor and a single rope rappel down the north side of the tower is all that's required for the descent. The rappel line follows the first ascent route and I'm curious to see how it compares with the route we climbed. It looks quite reasonable, perhaps chossier but easier. A stuck pecker leads to the question of whether it goes clean but to me it appears that large cams might negate the need for hammering, at least at the location of the obvious pecker.
From the base of the rappel, trial and error teaches us that we need to walk clockwise around the tower to get back to the south face, not counterclockwise. Ten minutes or so later we arrive back at the base of the climb and plop down to gather and repack our gear. The ground is dotted with piles of white dust, fragments of all the rock we let loose during the climb I suppose. The short bomb back down to the car is pleasant and soon we're tailgating under the hot desert sun sippin' on some cold ones.