Devo's Climbs

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Alpine Climb: Liberty Bell: NW Face

Kurt and I drove to Washington Pass Saturday night and spent the night at Klipchuck campground. With the weather forecast as it was, we were planning to climb the Southwest Buttress on South Early Winters Spire Sunday, camp in Darrington that evening, and climb Dreamer on Green Giant Buttress on Monday.

What really happened:

Sunday, Sep. 4, woke up at 6:30 am, had breakfast, broke camp, drove to Blue Lake trailhead. Sorted gear (I had packed at the last minute and my gear was still in shambles from Torment). Read the route description for the Southwest Buttress and realized that we didn't have enough 4-5" cams to do the route... OK... so we decided to do the Northwest Face of Liberty Bell (II+, 5.8) instead. We finished packing and were on our way at 9:05 a.m.

Upon hitting the climber's trail, I began to feel tired and shaky - not my usual self. I chocked it up to having not eaten much dinner the night before. Along the way I became disoriented and thought we had missed the turnoff to Liberty Bell and were on our way to South Early Winters Spire, so we wandered back down the trail where we met a couple of other climbers, also on their way up to climb the NW Face.

We finally figured out we were on the correct path and made our way up the choss gully leading to LB and Concord Tower. It took us a while to locate the 4th class scramble to the ledges leading around to the north side of Liberty. As we made our way around to the base of the NW Face it began to snow - very small, light, dry flakes. It didn't last long and the clouds didn't appear too threatening: light grey and high with intermittent breaks of sunshine. We decided that if the weather held, we could climb.

Rainbow over Washington Pass

I led everything and made good progress on the first three pitches by combining pitches 1-2. Pitch 4 is where things got interesting. We had made the mistake of leaving our guidebook behind with our stash in the gully, so I was navigating by sight. The face in front of me looked to have several options and I headed for the first (leftmost) one. From the belay at the top of pitch 3, I scrambled about 50 feet over easy ground (no pro needed), past a large ledge, and up an easy blocky flake. From there it was obvious that I had hit a dead end; the rock above me was nowhere near 5.8, so I downclimbed back to the ledge and Kurt scrambled up, relocating the belay. My first retreat.

I moved right to a lie-back flake leading to a promising crack above. The lie-back was a tad strenuous, but within the expected grade. Once atop the flake, I could see a red hex with an attached 'biner. At first I had thought it was a fixed piece, but I quickly realized someone had used it to bail. Upon closer examination, the crack above was good for only about 10 feet and then petered out into a shallow, flared, unprotectable scare-fest. I took advantage of the hex and - following my predecessor's example - lowered off. My second retreat.

I went even further to the right and found the correct route: a somewhat scary series of overlapping flakes leading into a corner belay at the base of a dihedral. We had lost a good bit of time and energy by this point - issues that would come back to bite us later. I started up again, climbing past bongo flakes with dubious protection, and muscled my way through a strenuous lie-back crux fighting cold, numb hands the entire way. Very frustrating to place gear and manipulate the rope when you can't feel anything! I wasn't having much fun anymore - I just wanted to top out, return to the car and get something warm in me. Despite the difficulty and discomfort, we managed the pitch. Four down, one to go.

Shortly after I began pitch 5, the weather worsened: a round of heavy sleet and hail dumped from the sky without warning and cascaded like a sno-cone river down the center crack, filling the holds with ice and transforming the walls on either side of the dihedral into vertical granite slip n' slides. The torrent was brief but debilitating: I was 20 feet up, cold and wet and unable to climb any further. At first, I tried aiding higher up to some better holds, thinking that if we made the summit the regular descent route would be the fastest and safest way down. But I was unable to make any headway; I didn't have the gear to aid even a short stretch. Finally, it started hailing and snowing again and I decided it most prudent to begin my third and final retreat.

It took some time to work out a plan. I eventually slung a rap ring on a single #9 nut (booty scored on a previous climb) and Kurt lowered me down to the belay. We rapp'ed pitch 4 off two nuts and a prusik chord (all mine). The remaining two rappels were off existing slings. At the base of pitch 3, as we were preparing for our last rappel, big, wet snowflakes began to drop and quickly blanketed us. We were very wet, very cold and extremely miserable. It was all we could do to keep moving, thinking the whole time of a warm car, dinner and bed.

Snow falls as I flake the rope for our final rappel

After making the base of the climb, we circled back around, rapp'ed the class 4 section to the gully, grabbed our remaining gear, and hiked down to the parking lot, arriving at 8:30 p.m. Then it was off to Lone Fir campground for a dinner of Miso soup and Green Curry Tofu stir-fry. We hit the sack about 11:30 p.m. Monday we were up at 8 a.m., left around 9 a.m., and home at 11:30 a.m.


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