O’Neill Butte 6,071′
Total Time: 8:30
Roundtrip Mileage: 4.9
Elevation Gain: 2,010′
Trailhead: South Kaibab Trail, full services
Companions: Justin Shelton and Brian Joseph
Along the South Kaibab Trail in Grand Canyon National Park stands O’Neill Butte, a prominent Supai sandstone summit admired by 1,000s of hikers each year. It serves as a focal point for those trekking down to ‘Ooh Ahh Point’ and Cedar Ridge, and is one of the more highly photographed features in the park. Since the South Kaibab Trail skirts the base of O’Neill, it is also one of the most accessible summits in the park, at least for those with some technical climbing skills. O’Neill Butte has at least 5 different established lines to the summit ranging from 5.0 to 5.9, with plenty of opportunity to develop others for anyone looking for a project. I wasn’t trying for any style points and decided to try and lead the North Face, rated at 5.0. I had scouted out the route in 2016 the day after my grueling outing on Cheops Pyramid/ Plateau, but backed off at the start of the second pitch finding the climbing a bit stiff to try without a rope. Now with some lead experience under my belt, I decided to try and bring up my college roommates Justin and Brian, both with minimal climbing experience. After a crash course in trad climbing on Sedona’s Morning Glory Spire several days prior, we headed to the canyon and caught the shuttle from the visitor center to the South Kaibab Trailhead. After filling our waters, we started down the trail in the early morning, quickly descending the switchbacks to Ooh Ahh Point, giving us our first look at O’Neill Butte for the day.
The vertical sandstone walls looked intimidating, but I assured them our route up the out of view North Face would be easier then the sheer cliffs in front of us. We continued down another series of switchbacks to Cedar Ridge and stopped from a short break, our last opportunity for restrooms until the rim. From there, it was a few more switchbacks to the saddle between O’Neill Butte and Cedar Ridge and we stopped for some photos before the real climbing began.
A well defined use trail left the South Kaibab Trail from the saddle and traversed beneath the east face of O’Neill. A small catwalk beneath the first series of cliffbands got us directly beneath the East Face where a group of 6 was attempting the East Face route- a challenging 5.8 dihedral.
Several in the party admitted they didn’t think they were capable of the 5.8 line, and wanted to follow us to see if the North Face could be scrambled. Without waiting for them to decide, we continued past, and rounded the northwest corner, climbed an easy class 3 ledge near a large pine tree, then reached the base of the first pitch.
Rated class 4, the first pitch is about 40-50′ of dark sandstone ledges, a bit smooth from water runoff. It was time to rack up, and we put on our harnesses, helmets and shoes with Brian cleaning and Justin serving as the anchor. I had climbed this pitch free during my recon hike previously, and wasn’t too worried as I headed up. There were a number of nice solid cracks for cams, and I quickly reached the upper ledge and made a quick anchor from a small tree.
I brought Brian up, and he seemed a bit spooked by the exposure on the exit off the pitch. Justin came up last, and we moved the belay about 50′ west to just before the northwest corner at the start of a blocky dihedral. I was pleased with how the first pitch went, and it seemed like we might be up in no time.
Just as we finished reflaking the ropes at the base of the second pitch, three of the climbers from the other group scrambled up the first pitch and met up with us. The trio would obviously move faster without a rope and I stepped aside to let them tackle the dihedral, somewhat just to see how they would approach it since this was the point where I had retreated during my reconnaissance. The strongest climber of the group (she worked somewhere in the park) started up the dihedral and quickly backed down. The two others didn’t even bother trying seeing the thin moves, and they scrambled back down the first pitch, leaving me to figure out how to lead the crux pitch. Although the crack took a BD #3 nicely, I had Brian spot me directly as I tried my hardest not to deck. The lower part of the dihedral allowed for some okay stemming, and I then transitioned by camming my foot and knee into the crack followed by a mantle up the remaining distance to the next ledge. The second half of the crux pitch was the infamous squeeze chimney. Only about 10′, the entrance to the chimney was extremely narrow, and initially seemed impossible. With my back to the wall facing out, I worked myself inside with my arms straight up, and was able to get my shoulders past the initial narrowing. Half inside the chimney, I couldn’t find much to hold on to, and quickly got myself stuck at that hips with way too much gear racked on my waist.
This led to a good deal of ball busting from Justin and Brian below as I spent the next 15 minutes trying to work myself free. I basically needed to transfer my gear from my waist to the slings across my shoulders until I had enough room to wriggle upwards. It was so tight there was virtually no danger of falling, and once I had finally worked popped my hips through the opening, it was easy stemming to the top of the pitch.
I made another quick anchor off a small tree and brought up Brian. He made short work of the pitch and made it through the squeeze chimney quickly (to my own embarrassment), and was overall much more confident on the less exposed pitch. Justin struggled a bit on the squeeze chimney with his hips getting stuck as well, but he eventually made it through and joined us at the top of the second pitch.
From there we shifted the belay about 10′ south to the final pitch, about 20′ of easy climbing to a tough mantle finish. Heading up, I initially thought the rope might be overkill for the pitch.
But upon reaching the mantle, I was immediately happy for the protection. The mantle was overhanging and I needed to work myself out of the crack to the right and turn around into the crack to pull myself up. A deep horizontal crack took a BD #3, which I backed up with a hex out of fear of my cam walking deeper. With the confidence gained from the two pieces of pro, I swung out onto the pockmarked wall on the right and mantled to the top of the third pitch, just below the summit cliff bands.
As I was building an anchor on a bush, three of the six climbers from the East Face route walked past, saying it was the hardest 5.8 they had ever climbed. They assured me the last summit cliff band was easy scrambling and headed off to the rappel, leaving me to bring up Brian and Justin. They both did not enjoy the final mantle move and the exposure required to commit to it, but spirits were high with the last bit of technical climbing behind us. We coiled our ropes and left them near the base of the cliff band, then scrambled up a few feet of easy class 3 on the northeast corner to the high point. I was pretty excited for this summit. Although not the most physically demanding (Cheops wins that one), this was my most technically challenging summit in the canyon, and I was able to bring two rookies up safely. We spent a long time at the summit drinking a few mini bottles that managed not to break during the climb and taking plenty of photos.
We spent about 45 minutes on the summit before scrambling back down to our ropes and walking to the rappel station at the center of the East Face. The most used rappel station is a large dead tree located a few feet from a sheer cliff in the center of the East Face, taking you completely down to the base. I doubled checked the webbing which looked fairly fresh (not to mention the three climbers before had just safely used it) and anchored myself to webbing before throwing down the two ropes tied together with a EDT.
Brian was up first, and after setting him up with a rappel lengthen-er, an autoblock, and double checking everything, he was off. He was out of sight for the entire descent, and it took a couple minutes before I heard ‘off rappel’ from down below. Justin was up next. I repeated the set up process with him and he very anxiously started down, looking the most unnerved I have ever seen him in 10 years of friendship. Of course, he made it down without incident and after checking everything over one last time, I rappelled down to the base to join them.
By the time I had made it to the base, Justin had hiked around to the north side to retrieve our gear, and Brian and I coiled the ropes and quickly organized gear for the hike out. Back in the relative comfort of hiking boots and packs reloaded on our backs, we started up the long grind back to the rim, taking a long break and Cedar Ridge and Ooh Ahh Point before reaching the rim over 8 hours from the start. It had been a very long but very rewarding day, and from there we headed to Flagstaff for some celebratory Vietnamese Burgers at Lumberyard before finishing off the long drive back to Phoenix.