Mt Slesse NE Buttress, Off the Couch

There was a time when I was obsessed with climbing mountains. Eventually I realized that in order to accomplish difficult climbing objectives, you need to do a lot of training, which consists of hanging out beside short cliffs, boulders, or in gyms. It turned out I found these other types of climbing super boring.

Hanging out at a crag is basically just standing around holding a rope, while staring at the sweating ass of some grunting dude. It’s probably also either raining, swarming with mosquitoes, or hot as hell. Later, you try to climb some pathetically small route, discover there is absolutely nothing you’re strong enough to hold on to, and the become terrified and panicked. When you fail to get up the pathetically small route, you probably start hating yourself for being weak. (Unless you’re one of those annoyingly optimistic people. The ones who eventually become good at climbing.) Pretty lame right?

Once my initial punch-drunk love of climbing started to sober up, I also noticed a thing about climbers. They only talk about climbing. Non-stop, all the time. All subjects come back to climbing. I was one of these people before. I was one of those assholes who, if there was only one other climbing in a group of several people, would ignore everyone else and just talk about climbing. It’s super annoying.

My obsession with climbing wasn’t fully dead until I became obsessed with a new thing: bikepacking. If you’ve been following this blog for any amount of time, you’ve probably realized I annoyingly talk only about biking. This is an on-going problem.

Recently, I discovered a blog called Wait But Why. Since then, I’ve been brought up to speed on what the hell is going on in Iraq, why I want an electric car more than ever/how Elon Musk is single-handedly making the rest of us look like useless turds, and why it’s actually kind of terrifying that we haven’t found any legitimate signs of alien life. Even more crazy: how artificial superintelligence is probably coming soon, and will likely mean the end of humanity. That’s crazy talk, seemingly on par with the ramblings of religious fanatics on “The End of Days” (*cough* mormons), except that Tim Urban can somehow make crazy very compelling. His writing is so compelling, that if you manage to get through all those links (say bye bye to a week of your life), you’ll realize that I’m now trying to copy his writing style. I’m concerned that from now on I’ll actually only be able to write like an over-confident-22 year old-Facebook employee.

Still, the important result is that I’ve been fully fuelled up on adult-quality conversation material. I can stop talking about climbing and mountain biking, take a deep breath, look my friends in the eye, and tell them that super-intelligent computers are, in my opinion, going to destroy humanity. Like an adult.

With my new-found well-roundedness, I felt it was a good time to accept climbing back into my life. Besides, the love of mountains, and impressively steep places, never went away. So, without initially telling my friend Artem that I hadn’t climbed outdoors in almost a year, I proposed we go climb the super-classic 25-pitch Northeast Buttress on Mt. Slesse, in the North Cascades. (That means the route is 25 rope-lengths high [a rope is usually 60m long, but back when Fred Beckey, Steve Marts, and Eric Bjornstad first climbed the route in the 1963, they usually used shorter ropes, and climbed shorter pitches]). A good warm up for my extremely tardy start to the 2015 climbing season, no?

Friends Nick and Caroline liked the idea, and decided to join us as a second rope team – an allied, but independent nation to our disaster-style, off the couch partnership.

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This being an especially hot summer, we made our Wednesday evening approach stripped down to undies.

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Even that wasn’t sufficient – arriving at our bivouac at the base of the slabs below Slesse’s huge east face, we cooled our bodies in the glacial trickles.

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The propeller cairn marks a bivy spot almost directly below the impact site of Trans-Canada flight 810, and the resting place of all 62 people aboard when it crashed in December, 1956.

Three years ago, near the peak of my obsession with alpine climbing, I climbed Slesse’s North Rib, a parallel route with a nominally similar grade. Our success was marred by some terrifying detours off route on the ascent, and a high-stress descent down exposed snow slopes, without crampons. I should have had every reason to assume climbing the NE Buttress from a sit-start – off the couch – was a bad idea. This realization did not arrive until I lay bundled in my sleeping bag, a few hours before we began climbing. Fortunately, it turns out the NE Buttress is way, way less serious than the North Rib, with difficulties short-lived, and  protection frequent (that means there are lots of cracks that will accept the chocks and cams we use to anchor ourselves to the wall).

Surprisingly, the climb amounted to several hours of fun, engaging rock climbing in a wild, ultra-exposed setting.

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We climbed the lower quarter of the route unroped in twilight.

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Smoke from large forest fires in the southwestern BC still lingered.

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We climbed the lower part of the wall, to the big bivy ledge mid-route, in three pitches – two long simul-pitches, and a short lead. (Simul-climbing is when both climbers move simultaneously, with gear in between them. The point: it’s faster because pitches can be a lot longer than the length of your rope and both climbers move at once, but it’s less secure, so we only do it on relatively easy ground.)

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Comfortable stances and ledges abound the lower half. This 1930’s style belay method is not approved.

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Caroline belays Nick up to a comfortable breakfast spot on the big bivy ledge.

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The big bivy ledge

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We climbed the upper half, which is fantastically exposed, steep, and riddled with holds, in six pitches, plus another simul-romp up the easy ground directly above the big bivy ledge. In case you’re not keeping track, we climbed the route in 10 roped pitches. That compares to my 25 pitches, with no simul-climbing (because it was hard!), on the North Rib. That both these climbs get the same grade (including commitment grade) highlights the major short-comings of climbing grades.

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Nick emerging onto the summit.

The descent off Slesse, via the Crossover Pass route, is more time-consuming than the climb, and quite steep until it rejoins the main approach trail at the base of the big cirque, some 1200m below the summit. At some point it became clear that it would be most efficient if only one person hiked back up from that junction to the propeller cairn to retrieve our sleeping gear, and that (unfortunately) the logical person for that job was me. Hoping that the others wouldn’t be left waiting at the car, I gave all my climbing gear to Artem, and ran much of the descent, and the 500m climb back up to our bivouac, and then another 1000m descent from there. Even if alpine climbing off the couch is not disastrous, stay wary of mountain running without training. For three days afterwards, my stiff legs had me lurching and hobbling uncomfortably.

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Artem admiring the north face of Slesse from the brink of the Crossover descent route.

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Mt Slesse, 2439m. The NE Buttress follows the prominent sun-shadow line. The North Rib can be found its right, on the narrow arete that runs between the large snow-patch and the dark groove.

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3 thoughts on “Mt Slesse NE Buttress, Off the Couch

  1. thanks Skyler.
    I hope you are too much a part of current thinking to separate yourself from it.

    that will be how we survive.

  2. Nice report and photos! My rock climbing experience is limited to top-roping and I once had great plans to grow those skills and climb Slesse, but I’ve pretty much realized that I’m not up for it and will likely stick to scrambling. That said, it’s still fun to live vicariously through reports like this, so thanks!

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