Washington Pass climbing had been on my radar since finding a free intro to the Supertopo guide about a year ago whilst researching climbing areas accessible from Vancouver. Paulie brought it closer to my watch when he mentioned attempting Liberty Crack on Liberty Bell and a possible trip to the States over the Canada day (July 2014) long weekend. After purchasing a Cascades guide book which had a small section dedicated to Liberty Bell and reading up on the route I was instantly psyched and given the required aid climbing skills required for sending it we both were stoked at the idea of this challenge in line with preparations for Yosemite.
Paul managed to convince Beth and Dean to join us for the weekend and everybody was getting excited for a team camping/climbing scenario. Dean a strong sport climber, seemed amped for his first ‘alpine’ experience and we were glad to cajole Beth back out to play in the mountains after being cooped up in Fort Mac, taking care of the construction of an airport all spring.
Beth and I drove down on Friday night and after surprisingly getting little trouble at the border we treated ourselves to a leisurely dinner and ale in Bellingham’s Boundary Bay Brewery (Golden alliteration!). After then missing the Junction to Sedro-Wooley off the I-5 through gossiping too much we realised that our cocky attitude to our quick border crossing may have thwarted our chances at an early arrival to the campsite. We rolled in to the Lone Fir Campground a long way into the dark of the night, to find the boys had already bagged us a nice spot and had been hanging around to share a beer with us for a while. Whiskey and chocolate ensued and by the time we turned in to cosy up in Beth’s tiny tent I was reeling with the anticipation of the view of the mountains that lurked behind the starry night we drove in by.
We woke at a leisurely hour of 7am or so. After slowly settling in to breakfast it was decided that a nice leisurely route at 5.7, taking a cool looking ridge line up ‘Le petite Cheval’ would be a great choice for a later start and a perfect gentle opportunity for Beth to ease back into her comfort zone and Dean to play around in the Mountains.
On the drive up the pass to the parking spot for the route I was blown away by the spectacle of the surrounding Granite spires, such beautiful rock architecture bursting out of the ground with cartoon like hairpin roads dropped in to circumnavigate the structures. The previous nights anticipation was thankfully not met with disappointment.
The start of the route; Spontaneity arete, was hard to find on Le Petite Cheval and after Paul and Beth took off in a different direction to Dean and I on the first pitch I was scared I would have let Dean down as an alpine partner and tainted his view of alpine climbing by fumbling around getting us lost.
Thankfully after some extensive 4th class and lower 5th scrambling we realised this was actually integral to the route and were back on track at a tree belay and slightly more technical terrain. At which point I suggested simul-climbing to make up for any lost time and we quickly spotted Beth’s green jacket high on the arete.
Simul-climbng worked well with Dean and our speedy tactics saw us quickly catching the Denny-McLellan team, only to find out that they had completely gone off-route and had missed most of the quality climbing including some nice, cruisey crack systems that Dean and I had enjoyed moving quickly over. It was a shame for them but I was pleased that it restored some faith in Deans alpine experience with me as a partner. It had been raining on and off all day so we made quick work of the last pitch (which in my opinion was the best – a blocky 5.7 crack) and scrambled over large blocks to tag the summit before making our way out.
Back at camp Dean and I refrained from regaling too many stories about the fun climbing on the route or the rewarding summit view but we learned through other discussions that Beth intended to hit the road on the Monday (the 3rd of the 4 day weekend) and since there was no way Dean was going to be left on his own on the Monday we realised Sunday was going to have to be the day for the attempted ascent of Liberty Crack. This was not ideal given Sundays weather forecast but it had to be. Beth’s departure hinged on some work being completed before Monday evening and knowing that Sundays forecast didn’t look too promising, we secretly hoped Beth would find some wifi in order to be able to complete the work and allow her to stay and climb with Dean on Monday.
We still prepped for the required alpine start on Sunday anyway and after a sub-par nights sleep, overfilled with adrenaline at the anticipation of the route, we awoke to the sound of heavy rain at around 3.30 am. With an agreed get up time of 4.30am, I piled on, getting things packed in light drizzle hoping things would be dry when we got to the alpine, but with a mind full of doubt. Paulie stumbled out of his tent with a disappointing look on his face to confirm my doubts and agree that the route would not be doable given the rain. It took us a while to accept the conclusion and crawl back into our tents, as with Beth’s imminent departure we knew a call-off would probably cost us the route as we would have no reasonable opportunity to get on it that weekend.
Thankfully things turned out perfectly, with another leisurely start – we awoke a few hours later, this time to sunshine and opted to spend the day sport climbing in the nearby village of Mazama. The weather was better out of the pass as we heard that the precipitation continued until the early afternoon around Liberty Bell. The low key day of sport climbing gave Beth the perfect opportunity to slope away from the crag early and get some work done, allowing her to stay and climb the Beckey route with Dean on Monday. Result!!
So again, at 4.30am the next day Paulie and I headed coldly up the road to the start of the Liberty Bell. Thankfully this time with clear skies. Unsure of what the conditions of the heavily snowed approach would be and after much discussion over strategies, we decided to don the big boots and crampons and take them up the route with us. The other option we were debating was leaving the heavy approach gear at the base of the route and abbing back down the climb. I hadn’t read of anyone doing this and had heard abseiling off the top section (where it was more traversey and featured) could be annoying with lots of opportunity for stuck ropes. I was not an advocate for this.
Thankfully the uncanny amount of hard snow around made the hike in much quicker with crampons on than it might have been trudging up in approach shoes on the dry scree slopes that are apparently usually encountered later in the season.
In order to give us both our equal share of the first few harder aid pitches, Paulie started us off and went for a free ascent of the 11a first pitch. It was long and thin and with a few sketchy tree pulling moves he got us to the first belay. I belayed from the snowy moat and attempted to refill my 500ml water bottle with clean snow after guzzling most of it just on the approach.
Jumaring with the bag was hard!! The route was steep and with the weight of two peoples winter boots, crampons and warm clothing it made the going very strenuous.
Next it was my lead, out of the two crux aid pitches Paulie kindly let me choose and I opted for taking the ‘Lithuanian Lip’ and airy small roof to pull over. The going was slow but sure and as I clipped a surprisingly good looking piton at the lip and swung out to the edge of the roof in my aiders the view down was incredible. Only a pitch up I could imagine how intimidating it would be to look down from some airy spots on El Cap, a sea of immaculate Granite sweeping below. I reveled in the position for just a split second before getting back to work placing small cams and pulling up on and over to the head-wall above. Unfortunately Paulie informed me as I swung out into the ‘money shot’ that I had the camera in my pack on my back so we couldn’t capture any cool photos.
Here the guide book describes 5.7 climbing happening almost immediately after you pull the lip. It might be worth noting that I encountered a good long section of continued aid before hitting the last few metres of unprotected 5.7 free and then hit the belay. Relieved.
Paulies aid Lead next. It turned out to be just as exciting with some of the ‘fixed’ copper heads blown and he performed some courageous hook moves to be able to Lead on through. Another long and draining pitch.
By the time the first three pitches were done we were almost at midday despite an early start. We weren’t too panicked though as we were fully expecting those pitches to take a long time and just hoped that our efficient transitions and the kick back to 5.7-10.a free climbing further up the route would see us pick up some speed.
We had agreed previously that the next 4 or 5 pitches would be Paulies block and he took off at a good pace. The route continued to give us some steep thuggy climbing despite being a more amicable grade and jugging with the pack on in such intense sunshine and over this terrain was beginning to wear me down a little.
At the described ‘loose’ pitch at around 8 or 7 Paulie had a hard time deciding where the belay stance he was supposed to reach was and ended up bringing me up on a 4 cam deep trad anchor. He was frustrated upon working out that the actual station was a little way above and that for the sake of rope drag we needed to hit that one anyway.
This belay shuffle cost us a little time and it was evident that we were both feeling a little weary. Paulie’s departing comment of “I’ll get us to the proper belay station, then we can have a look at the time and decide what we want to do” made me feel for sure that he was going to suggest going down, especially since we both knew abseiling from above that point would be much more of an ordeal, deciding to continue from there would be a commitment to topping out. Although I wasn’t feeling ready to go down, I was definitely feeling tired and my mental strength wasn’t feeling too resilient, I knew if he suggested going down I wouldn’t be able to carry morale enough for the two of us in order to convince us both it was a good idea to carry on with the time left.
Fortunately as I reached the next belay Paulie had already begun to stack the ropes ready for my lead and without saying anything I took the gear sling and prepped for my block. It was around 3pm and we were 5 pitches to the top. As long as there were no unforeseen complications I was confident we’d hit the top in the light.
Thankfully my pitches went smoothly and the 5.8-5.9 crack systems all began to run into one. The rock felt slick though and after spending half the day jugging with a heavy pack my tired muscles gave reason for the steep climbing to feel burly and unexpectedly tasking for the grade. This started to give me an insight into how it could be possible to move slowly on the nose, I can only imagine how hard freeing 5.8-.9 pitches would feel after days on the wall, with tired and grazed hands – not to mention muscles, let alone 5.10a. In this sense the Liberty Crack experience was a real eye opener.
As I linked the last two, scrambly 5.5 (or so) pitches together and Paulie struggled to second them with the pack (chimneying with a pack on as wide as you is hard!) it was evident we had reached the end of the climbing. Some 200 metres or so of 4th class would have taken us to the summit but in the diminishing light we opted out and decided to spend our time more wisely – finding the rap anchors! They were a traverse to the left and down a ways and being further away from the top of the pitch than we thought it took us a little while to find them.
We abbed for two rope lengths until we hit a scree bank. As we changed over to our boots and put on some warm jackets it was just about time to be turning on the head torches. We were hoping that like the approach, the descent route off the the back (which is the same for the Beckey route) was going to be filled in with snow so that the walk off was more amicable and straight-forward than the usual bolder field and scree slide. No such luck. The outing was loose and steep and tough going in the dark given our tired state.
I was wearing far too many clothes after feeling the initial chill of the temperature drop with nightfall and once we got moving again I quickly began to over-heat. Too tired and too stubborn to stop and de-layer I quickly began to feel the lack of water that I had drunk that day and de-hydration set in. As we slipped and tripped over hard to see loose rock it became pretty evident the long day was beginning to take its toll on the both of us.
A wrong idea about following the left side of the gully to stick to less loose terrain saw us having to back track up hill for 15 mins or so and really tested our patience. I was becoming really thirsty and the idea of water was all that was driving my legs one in front of the other.
It was pretty hard to see the way by head torch and as we reached further and further depths of the gully and branched out into the base of the mountain we knew the climbers path that gives the approach to the Beckey route would be coming up to our right. Finding the mouth of it would be another thing though. I was happy to follow Paulie’s lead with some hope that he’d remember something from approaching that way before. Sure enough after battling through trees and over boulders, as if by magic, we seemed to stumble across the path. In silence we trudged this easy switch back after switchback until after what felt like eternity we reached the road.
With the fun not over yet we had to pound up the road for – god knows how long – until we reached the car. In my head somewhere the figure of time was between 20 mins and half an hour and whilst I could almost smell the litre of water I had in the back of Paulies car, on the other hand it felt forever away too. Happily after about 15 mins of walking and a couple of failed attempts at hitching we crashed in the lay by beside Paulie’s wheels, sooner than I’d anticipated.
As I dumped my pack and lay on the ground Paulie unlocked the doors and pulled out a bottle of Whiskey from behind the back seat. With barely enough energy to hold myself in a sitting position we both smiled, sprawled out on the tarmac drinking a dram in celebration. We couldn’t wallow in our success to much though, we had to make it back to the campsite where we knew Dean would be waiting anxiously. We had calculated that if we were to top out safely in the light then we should be home no later than midnight at the absolute outside, since that would have given us two hours – ample time – to walk out. Dean decided this was his cut off and he would start to get seriously worried or make some decisions about calling for help at this point.
We rolled into camp after the ten minute drive at 11.57pm to thankfully see Dean doing a little celebratory dance that we were still alive and back in one piece. We were pretty happy about it too but preceded to tell him that things actually went much more smoothly that the late return time might have suggested, it was just a looong day and a loong descent given the lack of daylight.
So that was it. Chuffed to have completed such a notoriously challenging route and to also complete it in a day, albeit an 18 hour day, felt pretty incredible.It also felt like a small but non the less significant milestone in our ‘road to the Nose’ training. Pulling of some aid moves in a long day and getting time in Jumars and etriers.
After a leisurely day at the campsite basking in the sun an sorting some gear for me, we headed back up the road to Vancouver to feel fulfilled but exhausted back in work on Wednesday, awaiting the next adventure……