Tag Archives: South Fork of the Shoshone









I am getting old. Every year, I recover more slowly from big days out. Injuries have started to accrue rather than heal. My climbing partner has an artificial hip. The day I’ll have to back off is on the horizon. But I can still climb Ovisight, so that day has not arrived yet.

The hills don’t care who you are, what you do, or how you feel. The Ovisight/ Legg creek drainage cares perhaps a bit less than other sections of the world’s terrain. The approach is always just as treacherous and choked with snow, no matter the conditions elsewhere in the valley. This year was no different.

We got a late start, so it was mid-morning before we stood at the top of the approach pitch, where the entire drainage funnels through a gap you can stretch your arms across.

We slid and wallowed our way up to the first pitch. The ice was easier than usual, more five-ish than six-ish.

The second pitch was, as usual, harder than it looks.

At the top of the pillar, the snow was deep and the hour was late, so we went back to climb the first pitch again rather than pushing on to the final column of ice above.

As we were wrapping up, two teams of younger guys arrived at the first pitch. They had started at noon. I was impressed until I checked the clock. They hadn’t moved any faster than us, it was just that late.

We made it back to the car as the sky faded from blue to black and the coyotes began to call to each other. We were whipped and I think if either of us were asked at that moment, we’d have said we wouldn’t go back to climb Ovisight again. But, being old, we would forget that moment and next time the first pitch peeked around the ridge at us, we’d head back up for another Alzheimer’s onsight.

As our little diesel cranked and caught we looked back at the climb one last time and we saw headlamps wink on high, high up the valley wall. I shivered. Age had its advantages after all.

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Best of Cody – Mean Green

The moose which used to browse along the trail to Mean Green has long since gone, but the climb is still one of the best in the valley. With its neighbor High on Boulder, Mean Green is one of the handful of routes that occasional visitors to the Southfork aspire to climb. It is spectacular, with contiguous pitches at the start and finish, and it is long. You must have your system tuned up to get it done in daylight. So, though the vast majority of the climbing is WI 3, you ought to be solid at WI 4 if you expect to do the whole climb.

Mean Green from the Cabin Creek parking area

The climb follows the next drainage East (left, down stream) of  High on Boulder. From the end of the Southfork road at the Cabin Creek parking area, cross Cabin Creek and follow the trail left until it brings you to the gravel flats. Cross the river by whatever means necessary and keep walking pretty much straight toward the High on Boulder drainage until you intersect the Southfork trail. Turn left and walk until you see a sign that says “No Trespassing, No Hunting, Stay on Trail”. This is where you want to leave the trail. Don’t worry. The folks who posted are worried about people hunting, camping, cutting wood and generally tearing up the land and disrupting their cattle operation. In winter, if you are just passing through, you’ll be fine. Angle up toward the drainage and cross into the stream bed. Do this just before the drainage narrows, it should take just a single step down from the bank if you’re in the right spot. An easy hike gets you to the bottom of the first pitch.

First two pitches

About 50 meters of nice WI 3 leads to a belay at the base of the short 2nd pitch.

There were bolts and chains at a protected stance on the right, but I haven’t seen them for years. They are either gone or consistently buried now. Belay at ice anchors pretty much right in the line of fire. Send up the partner with the lightest touch to lead pitch# 2.

A short hike gets you to the short third pitch. Belay anchors can be a problem above the pillar.

Pitch #3

Look for ice anchors higher in the gully or use, uh, this…

Alpinism! Two slung chockstones and a 3" diameter pine tree

A bit more walking gets you to pitch 4. This is the kicker. It is much harder than any of the other climbing on the route, WI 4-5 depending on the year and the time of year.

By this time, you will have seen the upper slabs. They look like they’re just about 5 minutes up the way. This is due to something called ‘foreshortening’, a phenomenon where our optimistic little brains, lacking intermediate reference points, tell us that things are closer and steeper than they really are. It’s a solid 30 minute walk with some significant sections of ice bouldering. The slabs themselves are 75-80 meters of easy WI 3. Rappel and downclimb the route, the walk-off is a Bear Grylls sort of thing (gratuitous hardship undertaken due to foolishness or inadequate skill to avoid).

Upper slabs, top right

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The New Ice Season

If you go back to climb the same route on rock time after time, you may have a psychiatric problem. You can’t climb the same ice route time after time. The gist will be the same – same basic angle, relative water supply, temperature range, etc. The ice, though, will be brittle, squeaky dry, slushy, plastic, crystal, blue, green, featureless, chandelier, thin, fat, mixed – new every time.

Crossing the South Fork of the Shoshone.

You have to reinvent yourself every season, too. At the beginning, the sticks feel squirrelly and the feet, rickety. An ice screw every 8 feet anchors your psyche.

Pillar of Pain, 12/10/11

 Then the truth starts to come back to you. The last tooth on the pick will hold you. A good stick has a quality you can measure with your hands, eyes and ears. Spread your weight across hips, knees and ankles and the feet can float on the most delicate candles.

Then you can move, making it safe with every swing. The screws will keep you off the deck if the ice betrays you, because that is the only way you’ll fall.

A very wet, Ice Fest

I know, it’s aid, and so it’s easy like aid, the way a hand crack through a roof is easy, the way an offwidth is easy. But it is so cool to travel by real faith like that, not blind belief from a book or other people, but faith from knowledge you can’t get from words. In fact, it’s the coolest thing I’ve ever done, each and every time.

Starting the walk up to Pillar of Pain from the top of High on Boulder

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Best of Cody – Triptych

It's what you got, not what they call it. Cody "WI 4".

It is hard to get skunked on this one. There is so much ice up this drainage, it would be hard to do all the possible pitches in one day. It is the second drainage past Legg Creek and easily recognizable due to the Triptych – a set of three pillars side by side about half way up the mountainside. Watch out for sheep on the approach. Just as you come around the last bend, there is a mineral lick where the bighorns congregate. Take care not to frighten them or ‘push’ them from the site. You can size up Hostile Takeover while you wait for them to step aside.

The crowd at the mineral lick in the Triptych drainage.

Hostile Takeover












Climb through a narrow gap to the right and into the second tier of climbs, High School Squids on the left and Spittin’ Bullets in a tight chimney on the right.

Spittin' Bullets seen from the narrow gap leading to the second tier.

The next tier up is the Triptych pillars.

The Triptych

 Above that is Nirvana: two easier columns in the shade on the left, (?) Long Neck Bottle and another, regular strength WI 6 in the middle, and possibly two more wet, nasty icicles higher up on the right.

Part of the upper band bonanza, Triptych drainage.

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Best of Cody – High on Boulder

Let’s say you go to the Southfork Ice Fest and have a few Fat Tires while you watch the slideshow. You’re waking up the next morning at 9 AM with the motive but without the means to do some ice climbing. Wait, you don’t have to nurse your headache and ill temper until Cassie’s opens in the afternoon. If you’re looking for a fight that won’t land you in the county jail, you can still make it out to High on Boulder.

You can’t miss it. It is the intimidating flow directly across the river from the Cabin Creek parking area. Once you cross the river (stay tuned for options) you can go right up the stream bed or intersect the Southfork trail and follow it downstream until it turns left to round the toe of the ridge forming the SE boundary of the drainage. There, a faint trail angles off right and up. The trail is easier to walk, but harder to find. Take your pick.

First pitch of High on Boulder

The climb is easier than it looks. The first pitch goes at WI 3, ending at a bolt and chain anchor on the left, which may be buried by snow or ice. Pitch two is a nice WI 4 with a belay at bolts on the left at the next tier of cliffs above the top of the climb. The third pitch is another WI 3 to a tree anchor on the right. Sometimes, a slightly steeper alternative forms on the left side of the gully, straight across from the bolts. If you choose to go that way, the traverse back into the main drainage is not too bad.

Second pitch of High On Boulder


Finishing the alternate 3rd pitch of High on Boulder

Now you’re done, and still in time to get back to the chow line and more beers. But if you’re sick of all that decadent camaraderie, there’s more. A substantial hike with some easy bands of ice to surmount, leads to 25 meters of WI 4 and then to the final headwall and the Pillar of Pain.

Pillar of Pain

This is 50 meters of solid WI 5, with a tree belay on the left.

More Pain

Looking down the Pillar

OK, now you’re really done. But if you want the Gold Star, then down-climb and rappel  to the base of the 2nd pitch and climb the pillar off to the right (Moonrise, WI 5). Break out the headlamp and stumble back to the car. You’ll probably get lost and may take a dip in the Shoshone. This ain’t the kiddie pool after all, it’s the Southfork. And you went and did it right.

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Carotid Artery

Everybody does it. We all have relationships with inanimate objects. For certain classes of object, like vehicles or weapons, personification is so common it seems normal. Every climber I know has a relationship with at least one route. Sometimes it is a hostile relationship. Sometimes it is an abusive relationship, featuring a masochistic blend of fear, pain and desire. Usually, it is a mentorship, albeit a harsh one.

I once heard a historian lament never having gone to war.  He felt he missed the opportunity to find out if he was a coward. A naive sentiment, to say the least, but I understand the thinking because I always saw Carotid Artery as a similar sort of opportunity. I felt it like eyes on my back every time I climbed My Only Valentine, on the sunny side of the same rock amphitheatre where the Carotid Artery resides.

Climbing it the first time took a string of charms. During the drought years and before a large avalanche changed the water flow a bit, the ice formed late in the season if it formed at all. Once I’d worked up the nerve to climb it, the ice never touched down. So, I packed my rock gear. Honestly, the rack of cams and pitons was a talisman all along. The mixed version of the route is part of the Alex Lowe legend and an improbability for me. But the rack has worked its magic every time. The column was formed to the ground that first time I brought the rock gear and each time thereafter.

The mentorship has been rewarding, too. I’ve had all sorts of important questions answered on that climb, like ‘You’ll get no rest, so hows your gumption?’ and ‘Got your metaphysics in line, ’cause that last screw is a piece of shit?’. Trouble is, I think the magic may be wearing off. Last time, the ice was still touching, but with a gap in the middle. I had to use my ice tools on the rock. The placements were improbable, but they were possible. I even set a piece of gear in the rock, and it was good. The promise of salvation is a dangerous thing. I’m afraid the lessons may not be over.

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Best of Cody – Broken Hearts

Pitch 5 of Broken Hearts


If you could just do one climb in the Southfork… What an awful question. Still, Broken Hearts is the answer, no matter who’s asking. It has the easiest approach of the big, multi-pitch climbs, it’s mostly protected from the wind, it has some spectacular pitches, and it has about the widest range of difficulty of any drainage in the Valley.

Third pitch of Broken Hearts




The key to the whole trip up this climb is the third pitch. It gets sun in the morning and the top will disappear in warm, consistently sunny weather. It is visible from the road, if you drive a couple hundred yards past the parking spot for the approach.

First pitch of Broken Hearts

The first four pitches are moderate WI 3-4 climbing.


5th pitch, mixed form of Carotid Artery on the left.


Pitch 5 is a WI 5 pillar, with the WI 6/M7 pitch Carotid Artery just to the left.

6th pitch as fat as it gets.







Pitch 6 is a WI 6 pillar that often looks easier than it is. Pitch 7 rarely forms, but when it does – well, the photo speaks for itself.

7th pitch!

A few notes to supplement the guidebook Winter Dance, by Joe Josephson. The rappel anchor for pitch 3 is a tree high on the wall of the gully to climber’s right. The rappel atop the second pitch is from an ice anchor, check its integrity on the way up and be prepared to set your own or do the alternative descent if it looks dicey. Break the rap. down the first 2 pitches into two 30m sections, pulling the rope can be a frustrating experience otherwise. The ‘walk off’ described in the guide is feasible, but not trivial. It crosses some steep slopes and the break onto the ridge can be difficult to identify. Glass it before you try it and know that unless you have tracks in the snow to follow, it is the longer, more physically demanding alternative to descending the drainage.

3rd pitch rap.

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