Flying Buttress epitomizes the 5.10 grade at Vedauwoo. And what a plum. On the southeast aspect of Vedauwoo’s premier crag, The Nautilus, an enticing overhanging corner sweeps up from below the most prominent hump on the crag’s skyline—the protruding duckbill flange of the Parabolic Slab. Flying Buttress is the glaringly obvious line, streaked with yellow lichen. Robert Kelman’s guidebook calls the route, “the best single pitch of 5.10 at Vedauwoo.” It is the paradigm of what Vedauwoo requires—a touch of elegance, a bit of thuggery and an opposite-of-what’s-obvious approach.
The best 5.10s remind me of that first heady brush with a breakout grade. Every climber has a watershed climb, that vertical rite of passage that says, “That was then, this is now.” Whether a sketchy highball, dicey trad lead, or that do-or-die punch to the chains, those memorable journeys take us through the improbable to a place where we experience a mix of adrenalin, pure desire and suspension of disbelief.
The unanticipated open-ended evolution of the Yosemite Decimal System led to the mathematical misnomer “5.10.” When first conceived, the grade was also the technical point beyond which climbing became physically improbable, mentally taxing and demanding of a theoretical leap into an unexplored realm. By the time I got around to the Flying Buttress, I was well into my third decade of climbing. My first 5.10 by then seemed about as distant—though every bit as memorable—as the first time I necked after that junior year Sadie Hawkins Dance. With the fondness of recalling a first kiss, the Flying Buttress reminded me of why I started climbing—the thrill of unexplored territory and the fear of rejection. More important, it reminded me of why I keep climbing: that brief brush with beauty and those moments that allow me to re-experience that initial passion with the same wide-eyed wonder, even after 30 years. Climbing is a cyclical journey that always brings me back to where I began.
Some areas lend themselves to certain grades. Vedauwoo’s coarse high-country granite is abundant with cracks, whose peculiar angles and dispositions result in a disproportional number of 5.10s. The choicest of these often-flared fissures take the most aesthetic plumb lines, from tips to chimneys. The fact that the Flying Buttress is a standout among the hundreds of great 5.10s in the area speaks volumes about its quality, position and moves.
When first climbed in the 1970s by the pioneer Doug Cairns, Flying Buttress, though not a standard-setter, was part of a consolidation of grades in the area and an oft-eyed possibility whose daunting appearance had discouraged many visitors.
Often requiring a counterintuitive approach, Vedauwoo’s lines, though visually obvious, are devious the minute you sink that first finger, hand, fist or arm bar. Even easier routes demand sequences akin to the most beta-intensive face problems. It ain’t Indian Creek, that’s for sure. Though frequently cited as sandbags, these routes when done right acquiesce through elegant footwork and creative sequences.
Flying Buttress is usually climbed in two short pitches, though some opt for one long pitch (at 100 feet, long by Vedauwoo standards) .
Pitch 1 is a strenuous 25-foot 5.8 warm-up, taking hand- and fist-sized gear and ending at a belay in an alcove. Alternatively, start immediately right of the standard first pitch on Flying Right (5.9+), a hand/fist crack leading to a short chimney.
Pitch 2 is the business. Scope the arching overhanging crack noting the footholds on both walls before launching into the fray. The crack itself, uneven and varied in width, links hand jams. Pro is easy and obvious with plentiful opportunity to place a range of gear, from Stoppers to mid-sized cams. The farther one climbs, the wilder the position gets. Approaching the lip, the climber gets a taste of open air as the walls drop away, bombay style, like a poor-man’s version of the Tahoe area’s Grand Illusion. The flare and angle negate the standard splayed-leg stemming that’s typical of granite. In fact, classic stemming leads to an even bigger pump, putting the mid-range 5.10 leader into a physical and psychological cul-de-sac.
Halfway to the lip, as fatigue builds, you are confronted with a crux. The key involves stepping out of the linear jam/stem robotics and thinking in three dimensions. I don’t want to give it away, but see the photo to get a sense of the trick beta. I will give you this: Do it right and the grade should feel something like 5.10. If you do it wrong, you could be thrutching through what feels more like 5.11.
Upon deciphering this section, finish up the 5.7 offwidth. It’s a crowning touch to the pitch and don’t let your guard down until you fully turn the airy lip. Belay from the bolted anchor, and examine your mangled hands. Something about it should just feel right.
Vedauwoo and Route Beta
Vedauwoo is located off I-80, east of Cheyenne, Wyoming, and west of Laramie. The climbing is found on the picturesque clumps of granite rising from the plains north of the highway. Take Vedauwoo Road, Exit 329. Drive past the Turtle Rock parking and camping/day-use kiosk immediately before the paved road turns to washboard dirt. Drive a quarter-mile. On the left is the dirt parking lot for the Nautilus, complete with outhouse. Park. A five-minute walk around the right (Southeast) side of the formation puts you at the base of the Flying Buttress. The climb is easily identified as the overhanging alcove crack below the Parabolic Slab (aka the Potato Chip).
RACK/descent: Bring a single set of nuts and a full set of cams with a few extra hand/fist-sized pieces to set up a belay at the top of the first pitch. A #4 Camalot protects the final OW moves. Better yet, bring a #10 Hexentric or #2 Big Bro—the smooth sides will allow the rope to run cleanly when you bring up the second or toprope. Though possible, slingshot toproping is not recommended due to the angle.
A two-bolt anchor at the top allows a rappel or lower off. A 60-meter rope is nice as the entire route is around 100 feet long. Option: walk off or scramble to climber’s left and ascend a prominent corner to top of a summit block due south of the Parabolic Slab. The pitch, Deep Throat (5.10a), is a flaring offwidth leading to a thin-hands crux. Bring an extra #5 Camalot or equivalent if doing this pitch. Rappel from bolts.