It was Canada day long weekend and the time of year when I’m itching to find the right destination to host the first alpine climbing adventures of the season. It had been a heavy snow year so wouldn’t be a completely open playing field. Dave was keen and we discussed a few options before landing on heading into the Nesakwatch for reasons including but not limited to; exploring a new place we’d never been to before, abundance of mid length multi-pitches in the right grade bracket that faced South- ish (so would more likely be snow free and dried up), proximity to our homes in Vancouver and off the beaten track enough to likely be crowd free.
The Nesakwatch Spires are located close to Chilliwack BC just across the Canadian Border East of the well known Mount Slesse. There is a North Spire and a South Spire that both lie just North of Mount Rexford – the tallest peak in the range. With a reputation for some of the best alpine rock in South-West BC the spires seems to be one of the best kept secrets in the area and while information (such as this blog and others) is available, the climbing community would sure appreciate it to remain somewhat under wraps.
At the last minute our friends Beth and Kyle decided they liked the appeal of some alpine adventure climbing in a remote location over the long weekend and decided to head to the Nesakwatch Spires also. We were super stoked to hear we’d have friends at base camp but we coordinated our plans separately since it was a little late in the game to be able to figure logistics as a four. Dave picked me up early on Saturday morning – departing Vancouver around 6.00 am and Beth and Kyle left in their respective vehicle at roughly the same time.
We knew the Nesakwatch forest road (same road as to the Slesse approach) to the trail-head was supposed to be quite rough but we weren’t sure exactly what state it would be in so we opted to take Dave’s car, a mighty matrix with 4×4 capabilities. We thought it would be much more appropriate than my mini van. Turn’s out we made the right call as the road was reasonably gnarly for the majority of its length with a couple of extra gnarly spots that we had to move rocks around to pass. Unfortunately the first wash out was quite early on, about 3km before the trail head to Slesse even, so without a 4×4, this is where you would need to park (as of June 2017). Thankfully we made it to the spot where most people park, about a half Kilometre before the logging spur signed for Mt Rexford begins (another major washout prevents vehicles from getting right to the end of this road and being able to park right at the spur). I believe our success at making it to the furthest parking spot can be largely credited to Dave’s skillful 4×4 driving and experience pushing his little matrix to the edge of its capabilities, without this a high clearance vehicle would also have been asset.
Coincidentally, Beth and Kyle pulled up in their matching Matrix not long after we had. Power to the Mighty Matrix’!
We headed up the rest of the road for a short while (0.5km) before splitting left onto the logging spur signed for Mt Rexford. Another 0.5km after this we left the road breaking right onto the well marked trail through the forest. The trail was extremely steep from the get go and even though we decided to forgo a tent in favour of bivying, my pack felt excruciatingly heavy, maybe that was just due to my lack of fitness in the early season as everyone else seemed to be doing OK!
Shortly after we crossed a creek and then at around 2km we crossed another creek before breaking out of the forest and following along a steep granite wall which looked like it would have some awesome climbing on it. (We later figured out this was likely the infamous Chinese Puzzle wall the Marc-Andre and Brette had done some FA’s on).
At around the height we encountered the rock wall (1350m approx!) snow patches began appearing that were big enough to disrupt our course of travel, it wasn’t too hard to navigate around them however.
The last stint up to the bivi boulder is a rising traverse up past the South Ridge of the North Spire, which for us was fully buried under snow.
I had heard lots of good things about the ‘bivi rock’, a reportedly large flat boulder among the talus field at the bottom of the spires, providing the only real possibility for camping in a group bigger than two. This boulder is a few feet high so often stays above the snow (if you go early enough for there to still be snow around) and has AMAZING 360 views with the spires to the South West and the Slesse range out to the East, making for an awesome pedestal to sit and do some route gazing while watching the sunset.
As soon as we got to camp we dumped our packs and started sorting the rack. it was around 1.30pm and with lots of daylight left we figured we’d have plenty of time to go climb the 5 pitches of ‘Dairyland’, the classic 5.10+ on the South Nesakwatch spire.
The route has a crux pitch mid way up of 5.10+/5.11 but we had heard the toughest pitch was the last pitch, a 50m long sustained hand crack weighing in at 10b. We had brought a pretty substantial rack for this with 2 x #3’s and 3 x #2.
It took us all of about 10 minutes to get to the base of the route but we donned our crampons over the top of our approach shoes as it was still a snow approach and we didn’t want to lug our big boots all the way up the route. Turns out it was pretty chill traveling though. The crampons went in the pack along with the axes.
The route starts with a distinctive looking long hand/fist crack in a corner, which makes it easy to find. This was my pitch and I really enjoyed the cool climbing. Super fun!
Dave took the next two pitches. These are quite wandering and the 2nd pitch is pretty vegetated. We just aimed to get to the bottom of the long corner that formed pitch 4.
Pitch 4 was my pitch and supposedly the crux pitch. There were a couple of thin moves low down where the cracks and small holds felt a little dirty which was a little disconcerting, but if you could keep your head concerning this then the climbing wasn’t too hard. The crux move comes a little higher up when the corner crack transitions into a high face hold that takes a bit of time to work out (at least for me) and then a little commitment. There is gear but it’s thin and feels a little marginal, nevertheless, it is all there. Once this move is over, there are a few techy face moves to come with sparse gear but the hardest moves are already behind you. A tricky and fun pitch.
The next pitch is the money pitch. Its 50m of splitter hand crack with few rests. Dave did a great job at leading this pitch, there were no hard moves but the endurance factor makes it the hardest pitch of the route for sure. There is a fork higher on the head wall, Dave took the right hand fork which seemed the right way to go, it leads to a super cool section where you climb through a hole to reach the summit terrain.
After this you scramble up towards an obvious and cool looking summit block that has a wide crack in it. Dave lead us up this pitch and since we didn’t have any wide gear it was pretty much a free solo, thankfully its pretty easy and short, not to say that I wasn’t pleased to have a rope though (wide crack is still not my forte). The belay for the second is pretty difficult actually, Dave had to wrap a sling round the top of the crack and the edge of the block and belay from below the top. The easiest and funnest logistic would probably be for both parties to solo the crack and stand on top at the same time. Still pleased we made the effort to stand on the tippy top though! Beth and Kyle were over on Rexford when we made it up and managed to snap a pic too!
It was getting pretty late since we hadn’t started the climb until around 2.30pm so once we’d stood on top we started the hussle to get off before dark. This started with a down scramble toward the notch between the South Spire and Rexford which was pretty straight forward, there is one rappel at the very end to reach the notch proper. For us this took us from the rock and planted us at the top of the snow slope. This is the point where we put our crampons back on and took the axes out of the pack.
The snow in the exit gulley was starting to get quite firm as the sun became low late in the day and the gradient was steep enough to require some care descending. I’m quite used to trudging around snow slopes in my winter boots and technical crampons from Scottish winter days, but this summer I’ve learned on several occasions that I’m not as comfortable with aluminium crampons strapped to my flimsy approach shoes. It also started to hit me that it had been quite a long day since we started out on the hike and I was beginning to feel quite fatigued – aware of this and not wanting to make any stupid mistakes I took my time kick stepping down the slope and making sure every foot was planted properly. I also neglected to bring gloves up the route so my hands were getting pretty cold each time I drove my Ice axe into the snow. I had to keep stopping and letting the blood flow back into my hands to avoid the screaming barfies!
It was a satisfying feeling to get back to camp and open the bag of salty chips Dave had hiked in for us. Once we were out of our wet socks and getting dinner on the go we happily spotted Beth and Kyle beginning to descend the slope we had just come down since the descents are the same for South Spire and Rexford. It was cool to watch the little dots in the distance and have our friends get closer until they were back in camp sharing stories of the day with us and knocking back a few swigs of whiskey.
We didn’t last long that night as it got dark soon after we were all back in camp but we did stay up long enough to watch a cool sunset and then crawl into our cosy bivi sacks. Beth and Kyle chose to pitch their tent a couple of boulders over on another flat spot. There are a few spots at base camp but the primo flat ones could easily get sucked up quickly (especially snow free ones) if another party were there too. It was pretty awesome to only have to share this incredible alpine camp with a few close friends. It was like our own private doorstep alpine crag! I slept happy that night.
The next morning we rose leisurely. The route we wanted to go climb was the Southwest Ridge of the North Nesakwatch spire. A 5.9 multi pitch with maybe only 3-4 pitches of climbing at 5.8-5.9 but long stretches of 5th class and scrambling breaking them up. A nice alpine rock adventure. After a leisurely breakfast staring out at the views of Baker and the border mountains we headed out of camp and were at the base of the route for around 10am. We weren’t exactly sure where the route started but we found some clean and enticing looking cracks that seemed like they followed the ridge line as prescribed so we started up.
The climbing was fun and quite burly in places in the steeper cracks but this was also broken by large sections of easier, less steep terrain that had potential to cause a lot of rope drag, for this reason we didn’t run the pitches too long, stopping to make belays whenever a ledge made it seem good sense to do so. This resulted in making more pitches than strictly necessary but we weren’t too worried since we had a lot of time.
If you were looking to make this more efficient and make a quick dash for the summit then making big long pitches is definitely possible. Dave and I both had the mindset of taking this route at a leisurely pace and enjoying the climbing and the views, since we were pretty sure it wouldn’t take us too long, we had a lot of daylight and didn’t need to be in any great rush.
After about three or four pitches the climbing difficulties eased off significantly and we started to move pretty quickly over low angled blocky terrain. If I remember correctly we still stayed roped up for the majority of it though. I remember thinking it wouldn’t be very far to the final pitch of more technical climbing and that’s why we stayed roped up, but I also remember this not being the case and it actually being a significant part of the route. In hindsight it would probably be quicker to un-rope and scramble. We were enjoying the views and situation anyway.
Soon after the scrambling we came to the last pitch. Its a really fun and surprisingly steep 5.8 crack running up a final head wall.
We hit the summit after this pitch and with plenty of day left enjoyed a bar and some squashed PB&J sandwiches in the sun. The descent off this route is fairly straight forward as you down scramble off the back of the spire and into the saddle between the North and South spires. The terrain is pretty amiable except for a few loose blocks to be wary of but it’s all on dry rock until you hit the low angle slope that is a 10 minute stroll away from camp.
We got back to camp mid afternoon and enjoyed relaxing in such a beautiful setting. Some ominous clouds hovered over the western ranges and we were unsure if they might roll in on us in the night despite a clear forecast so we set up our tarp with tent poles, in case the weather did come in at least we’d be set up ready to take shelter.
Thankfully we stayed warm and dry under another clear night sky. In the morning we decided that we weren’t super psyched to go bag Rexford just for the sake of it, we had done both the routes we came to do and were happy to have another leisurely mornng enjoying the mountain camp and use the day to hike out and get back to Vancouver. This decision was also made with the big blisters I had on my feet in mind. I’d managed to acquire them on the hike in and had put on a brave face keeping them covered up in my TC pro’s whilst climbing, but wasn’t keen on a third day of skin abrasion for the sake of it.
It was another gloriously sunny day and it felt nicer to hump our packs out with a little less weight. We managed to loose Beth and Kyle about half way down the trail but had planned to rendezvous for a burger and pint somewhere in Chilliwack. Unfortunately we got split up in traffic jams and out of the range of cell service so Dave and I were left to dine alone. After some faffing and indecision about where to go (not really knowing Chilliwack at all), we ended up at ‘Friendly Mikes’ for a beer and some good old greasy fish and chips. This hit the spot but repeat trips to the border mountains will require some research into other options of where to tend to our post alpine calorie deficit.
All in all this was a really memorable trip exploring a great little remote area. I’d be happy to go back again but think that we already picked off the gems within our grade bracket, next time I’ll have to step up and try Fairytales and Fantasies!!