Mount Slesse is famous for a plane crash and a buttress. In December 1956, Trans Canada Airlines flight 810 collided with the side of the mountain during a winter storm. All 62 people on board were killed. In August 1963, Fred Beckey, Eric Bjornstad and Steve Marts made the first ascent of the Northeast Buttress, which was later included in Steve Roper and Allen Steck’s fateful 1979 publication of “Fifty Classic Climbs of North America”. Such events prove simple ingredients to fame and infamy.
The Northeast Buttress, following a great sweep of mountain 800m from glacier to summit, is an awe-inspiring feature and has captured my attention since I learned of its existence. But its significant flaw as a climbing route comes from the volatile pocket glaciers that guard its base. One must cross under the calving edge of one of these glaciers, or over the crevasse maze of the Bypass Glacier to reach the bottom of the Buttress.
Michal Rozworski suggested we try the North Rib, a route opened by Jeff Lowe and Bob Keisel in 1972, which is similar in length and grade to the Northeast Buttress at 5.9 V, TD, 27 pitches, though more sustained with all but one pitch at 5.7 or harder. The approach to the North Rib crosses the North Slesse Glacier away from its calving edge, over relatively stable terrain, and the rock on the Rib is compact and cleaner than that of the Buttress. The trade-off of more difficult climbing for less objective hazard is one I am happy to make.
Michal and I left Vancouver on Tuesday afternoon, after dropping his wife off at the airport. We planned to drive to the trailhead, up the Nesakwatch FSR, which we understood from various descriptions to be low-clearance, two-wheel drive friendly. It is not. The culverts have recently been removed and a slide has taken out a section of the road. At about the 1km mark, we somewhat violently crossed a water bar. At the next waterbar, I got out of the car to spot our way through, and smelled gasoline. We had ripped the fuel line off the undercarriage and fuel was gushing out. I dove on the ground to hold back the flow of gasoline. Michal brought me twigs of various sizes until one fit as a plug.
With nothing more than duct tape and a piece of platypus hose, I was able to effectively (and perhaps permanently) splice the broken ends of the fuel line. Less than 30 minutes later, we were back in working order. Surprised that we wouldn’t have to bail at this point, we parked and opted to hike the remaining 5km of rough road. Around 11PM we carved a bivouac platform into the steep wooded hillside, somewhere above the Slesse Memorial cairn.
In the morning I hid my sleeping bag and pad. It would be a cold night ahead, but my pack was already heavy enough to hinder climbing. Michal abandoned his down jacket and kept his ultralight sleeping bag at the last minute.
“Perfect.” I thought, “there will be room for two under there.”
We had crossed the North Slesse Glacier, careful without crampons, and were roped up on the rock by about 8AM. I led the first block of five pitches. These involved run-out, delicate slabs and somewhat challenging route finding but are lower angle than higher on the route and made for less physical climbing with backpacks. As I removed my pack at the second belay I accidentally unbuckled my chalk bag. Damn. It tumbled back to the glacier.
After three hours, Michal took over for his block. The climbing steepened as he led up the crest of the Rib and through some more challenging route-finding. Michal led some thin cracks that felt like 5.10. So far everything had gone very well. We took the guidebooks too literally when they said to keep right of the crest after a distinctive headwall bypass pitch. Back on my lead, I got sucked too far into the North Couloir and found myself 15m above gear on wet, sloping terrain. I cursed and shouted, barely able to keep myself together under the stress. This was not the kind of run out, off route climbing we laugh about. Michal and I swapped a couple more leads trying to get back on the crest, but my nerves were completely fried from terrifying run outs.
Fear is an ever-lurking force in alpinism. One’s ability to keep overwhelming emotions under firm control is the real measure of one’s alpine climbing ability. The internal fight – cold rationality over the explosive runaway train of terror – is really a deadly survival game. Things go downhill fast when you lose your cool. Exhausted and stressed, Michal and I were each struggling hard for control and composure. We were too high to bail, too exposed to hunker down, and I was a psychological mess, swallowing hard at an over-revving heart and blinking hard at the shadows on my periphery. Michal had to take the lead and he did.
A little ways above the belay, Michal fiddled with a nut in a wet, vegetated crack. I looked hopefully at belay. I had put a cam on each side of a possibly-flexy block in hopes that the forces would counter-act each other. Somehow Michal slipped. I was pulled hard into the belay as he crashed into the rock below me. Fuck. A near factor-2 fall. My hand was mashed and his looked worse.
“Holy fuck!” I yelled pointlessly, “You can’t do that!”
The rules are that you never fall in the alpine, you never fall where it might be factor-2, and if you’re not climbing, you’re hiding. But the only rule that doesn’t get broken is gravity, so we equalize our three piece belays and we re-direct the lead rope through the anchor, and we live because we believe in detail and redundancy. But we couldn’t sleep where we were. Our minds and bodies desperately needed a place to lie down and feel safe. So, we tried to move as quickly as we could.
The sun set, and Michal kept climbing by headlamp. A little ways up the soggy, slick corner he fell again. This time it was a relatively low-impact fall and he was soon moving upward again. After another pitch we came to some sloping ledge that might have allowed for a sitting bivouac. Michal heroically stayed on the sharp end and kept climbing in search of a proper ledge. We were engaged in an epic on the first day of a grade V climb.
“Watch me here.” I heard him say somewhere out in the dark.
I tried to sound reassuring, but I was too terrified to even be belaying. I couldn’t see a thing. Michal yelled as two big blocks broke free beneath him and he fell several meters. The blocks crashed down the gully below me, sending sparks and pulverized rock fumes into the night. He finished the pitch and warned me of another loose block that I’d have to pass. If it let go while I was below it, bad things would happen.
I found Michal covered in bleeding scrapes and bruises at the belay. Nonetheless, he kept moving almost immediately. Forty meters later he found a proper ledge, large enough for two people to lie down. At midnight, after 16 hours in rock shoes and about 18 pitches of climbing, we could finally lie down on our beds of rope and backpack. We ate a few spoonfuls of peanut butter and some more of the same bars we had been eating all day. I put on all my clothes and wrapped myself in a thin tarp. Happy birthday to me.
Exactly two years prior I had climbed the Kain Route on Bugaboo Spire on what was simultaneously my first trad climbing and alpine climbing experience. A year ago I was in the Cordillera Blanca, climbing among some of the highest mountains in the western hemisphere. And now I was on a tiny ledge part way up a massive face, dead tired, after a royal birthday spanking. Had I bitten off more than I could chew this time? Where does one draw the line?
A little while later I was awoken by something scratching near my head. A rodent had invaded our ledge and was trying to chew something. Fred Beckey had warned of ‘snafflehounds’ chewing his ropes on the first ascent. For the next hours Michal and I woke up every few minutes to hiss at the creature, shine our lights in its eyes and throw rocks. Our dislike for the annoying alpine rat was only countered by our awe at sharing an exposed perch on an enormous rock face with an adorable wild animal. The snafflehound (actually a Bushy-tailed Woodrat, or ‘Packrat’) disappeared as a faint light spilled onto the eastern horizon. But the night had cooled off. Bouts of shivering kept off proper sleep but I was too tired to move my bed and attempt to spoon with Michal under his sleeping bag. The fetal position proved somewhat effective.
Awake and out of water at 5AM, I led two pitches to the North Col where we rested for an hour and contemplated the easy bail out opportunity from the col. Above us the summit pinnacle rose very steeply. The climbing looked physical and intimidating, but the guidebook promised five pitches of “sustained and exposed 5.7-5.8 climbing”. We saw rap tat one pitch up, so decided to test the waters. The rock changed from compact granite to metamorphic and foot holds appeared everywhere. The climbing was at times loose, but generally easier than it looked. At 2:30PM, five minutes after a pair of Washingtoners topped out on the Northeast Buttress, Michal and I arrived on the summit.
As far as the summit register was concerned, ours were the first and second ascents of 2012. The pages revealed generations of famous names, one of the lastest entries from Alex Honnold and Colin Haley. As mere mortals, Michal and I had to take a spanking for the summit. This was what the type of terrain where mediocre climbers like myself should not get in the habit of hanging out. And our spanking was far from over.
We teamed up with Peter and Adam for the descent. A couple rappels and some down climbing brought us to the trail along Crossover ridge. Soon we were trying to descend a steep snow slope. Our friends had carried up aluminum crampons. Michal and I discovered our flexible running shoes made for terrifying descending on the relatively hard snow. We made two rappels off bollards to get onto Crosscut Ridge proper. A few hours of spectacular ridge walking and one more rappel in gorgeous afternoon weather brought us to Crossover pass. From here, Jeremy Frimer’s descent guide promised an easy hike down. But the trail was under snow and we were left traversing on the steep snow, above large cliffs. Peter and Adam became our rescuers as they slowed down and kicked solid steps so that we might follow. Hours passed as we made slow, stressful progress. Finally we traversed past the cliff band and were no longer exposed below. It was still relatively steep and I resorted to facing in and kicking steps down the slope for a couple more hours. Meanwhile the sun set again.
Eventually the angle eased such that Michal and I felt comfortable glissading. Without the help of Adam and Peter, I’m not sure how we would have made it to this point. There is no glory in depending on a rescue to get off the mountain. We were under-equipped for self-sufficiency. Finally we were surrounded by running water and could drink more than the few mouthfuls we had had during the day.
Our new challenge became finding the marked trail as we dropped out of the alpine in the night. I had a nagging feeling drawing me down and right, toward where we had approached the base of the Rib the previous day. I sought the edge of my mental map. We wandered back in forth, dropping below known territory before heading right and were soon bushwhacking aimlessly in the dark. Michal’s ankle felt unstable from previous night’s rock fall incident. Adam was meant to be at work in Leavenworth, WA, by 7AM the next morning and we were slowing them down. So they split a bit before midnight. Michal and I kept bushwhacking right, holding our elevation, until it was clear we were on the edge above of the cirque. It took time, but we had eliminated that direction. Now we traversed back left without doubt for a half hour until we were greeted by the wonderful reflective markers of the Crossover Trail. I looked at my watch: 1:08AM. Hour 20. Finally safe on a well-marked trail, we vowed to keep walking until we were at the car.
A half hour later we were greeted by headlamps coming up the trail. Search and Rescue.
“I hope you’re not here for us.” I said when I saw their vests.
No, a rescue had been called for Peter and Adam. Someone had reported them as past due despite Peter having contacted his wife from up on Crossover Ridge. When the SAR guys found them A-OK, Peter and Adam told SAR we were still lost behind and that Michal was injured. The friendly rescue team, volunteering to spend all night outside, walked down the trail with us. They promised to make sure our car started.
At 4AM, after 23hrs on the go, Michal and I pulled off our soaking wet shoes, and sat down in the car. The fuel line was fine, the ordeal over, and we only had a drive ahead of us. Knowing the drive can be the most dangerous part, we parked on the side of the Chilliwack Lake Road and slept until 7AM. After a stop for fast-food burgers, we cruised comfortably back to Vancouver in the morning sunshine.
I think I’m meant to feel some sort satisfaction after climbing such a complete and challenging route. I was still mulling over the feeling that we lucked or cheated our way through it when I learned that a friend was missing on Palcaraju in the Cordillera Blanca. A week overdue. That night, I blew out the candles on a belated birthday cake wishing only that Gil Weiss and his partner Ben Horne would survive whatever epic had befallen them. You don’t survive a week of epic in the high places though. The next morning their bodies were found.
I’m left with confusion and loss. Though we only hung out for about three weeks while I was in Peru last year, Gil’s stoke had been infectious. The blog he contributed to, pullharder.org, inspires much of this blog. His writing was captivating, his encouragement addictive, his climbs inspiring, and I idolized the passion with which he seemed to live his life. I thought him invincible, even, and the suddenness and finality of death in the mountains has left me struggling with my own dreams. Having survived an epic on a grade V, TD climb, having kept my cool no matter how close I may have come to losing it, should I go at it again with more experience and care? A bright light has gone out. Should I carry the torch? Or, is the spanking to be taken as a lesson that I’ve crossed my threshold – that this game needs to be reined in? I can’t decide. I’m tired and nervous, but those brushstrokes on the mountains still grab at me. It is a strange and addictive sort of art that draws invisible lines on hills with unlocked gymnastic riddles. The Coast Range is an intoxicating medium.
Likely I need to spend some time enjoying the mountains without the stress of an alpine climb while I figure these things out. Still, I feel the need to immortalize the memory of a friend with a route.
Rest in peace Gil.