Winter Ascent NE Buttress of the West Lion - AI3 / M3-4, 450m
Graham Rowbotham and I climbed the NE Buttress of the West Lion on Feb 25, 2017. Another party had posted that they climbed it about a week prior and I knew we had to get on it asap before conditions changed.
I have wanted to write a TR on this route for a quite a while now since I'm not aware that there is any information available for this route in winter. I have done the summer version of this route which is a bushy alpine 5.6 but in the winter it is not the same route and is significantly more technical.
Jesse and I had tried this line a few years back, conditions were much different on that trip and a rocky headwall near the top of the 3rd pitch, which was easy to overcome this past Saturday, was on my previous attempt rimed up with unconsolidated sugar snow to the point that no pro or line of ascent was evident. We bailed. This weekend however was a different story and it became evident to me that the conditions on this route, and alpine routes on the north shore generally speaking, can be very temperamental. This can certainly effect the difficulty so please take my attempt at grading the route with a grain of salt.
Overall this is a very unique and fun line that is not necessarily hard but it is also not trivial. It requires careful considering for climbing over thinly ice covered rock, it has some low grade dry tooling sections, lots of run-outs and requires contending with less than secure snow over very steep and exposed terrain. It does also have some wonderful frozen sections and some bushiness in places. Bailing off this route is also complex and in most places requires you to rapp the entire buttress to the bottom, (except if you bail East from the lowest tree between pitches 2-3, then you barely reach the NE gully with barely a meter to spare with 60m ropes, like me and Jesse found out by mere chance in fading light...), this is because there is no certainty you will find intermediate ice/trees/pro on the vertical cliffs that surround this ridge route. Nevertheless, I would still recommend this route to others in the Lower Mainland looking for worthy winter alpine objectives close to home.
Our times for the route were as follows:
-Left the car at 6:15am
-Started soloing the North Face bypass at 10:15am
-Summited at 3:45pm
-Finished x3 raps back into North Bowl at 4:45pm
-Back at car at 7:15pm
Our approach for the route was up the standard 4.5km (600m gain) logging road uphill from Lions bay to the Lions trail turnoff. From there it's about another km or so uphill for another 500m vertical, then you reach the first main North snow bowl/basin. The descent gully from the notch between the summit and the ridge is obvious from this location. We stashed our poles and snowshoes here and traversed across the basin to another notch, from there we down climbed the gully on the backside and continued across to the start off the route.
We opted to go up the North Face bypass, which is about 200m long of steep snow and a short section of grade 2ish ice at the bottom. We followed this up and leftward to where we set up our first belay at an obvious tree high on the ridge crest.
The rest of the belayed pitches are broken down below:
Pitch 1 - 40m, AI2 / easy mixed
The first section takes you mostly straight up the ridge proper over steep snow and thinly ice cover rock steps. There were a few sections where I climbed with my hands over jugs. Gear is slim, mainly a slung bush or two. At one point near the top you travel a bit left prior to getting up to the next obvious stand of trees. Pass these trees and head to one higher up near/below a triangular shaped rock that gives a comfortable, sheltered, flat belay perch.
Pitch 2 - 65m AI3 / M4
To me this felt like the most technical section on the route. From the belay you head right and around the triangular rock and then straight up and leftward. from up here it is possible to just traverse 10-15m left straight into the gully but we opted to go up over a steep rock step that lead you onto a higher leftward leaning ramp below the face (seen better in topo photo), small cams were used primarily up to here. Then follow the gully that typically provides great styrofoam ice up to a bushy area where the angle begins to ease. This will bring you to a junction where you can either go left or right around a small buttress. The last portion either provides protection for screws, or slung bushes, and the belay is from a slung tree/bush below the junction.
Pitch 3 - 40m, AI2+ / M3-4
From the belay head right at the junction and up a gully that then puts you above the exposed North face. After about 20m you come to a 10m headwall. There is a large body size rock on the left side that you have to squirm up and stand on top of. From here there is a few decent cam placements above your left shoulder. The angle above begins to ease a bit and provides thinly ice covered rocky bulge that you mantle over. Thereafter you front point another 10-15m to a large tree for a belay.
Pitch 4 - 40, AI2+ / M3-4
Climb immediately up to the left hand side of the ridge crest for about 15m. Here you arrive at a few cruxy moves, about a body length or two, that gains access back onto the ridge, which requires mantling onto the crest from a bouldery stance with insane exposure. Below this Graham slung a horn and he found cam slot after brushing away snow from a crack. The moves onto the ridge requiring some drytooling as well as gingerly climbing up a smear of ice less than an inch thick at the bottom. After this you follow up 30m along a knife shaped ridge that drops precipitously on both sides so travel with care. Continue along the ridge and into/through an obvious large stand of trees that provides a belay.
Pitch 5 - 25m to 35m Steep Snow
The last section of the route climbs up very steep snow to top out onto the summit.
For the descent we did two rapps down the regular scramblers route. At the bottom we climbed back up to a notch. Previous times I have simply down climbed the gully on the other side of that notch but this time there was a huge cornice over it so we rapped from a tree a little ways back from the cornice.
Gear we brought:
- 70m twin/half ropes
- Small set of cams #2C4, #.5C4, #1-3 TCU, #2 link cam (used them all except the #2C4)
- x6 nuts (did not use)
- x8 short screws (used a couple)
- small set of pins (did not use)
- Snow fluke (used on most sections) should have brought an extra fluke or picket.
- 12 draws/extendables, probably only needed 8-10, definitely leaned more on extendables.
Route top viewed from the North
Route topo as seen from the ridge just East.
View of the first North basin with descent gully visible
View of the North face bypass
Me soloing up the North face bypass
Graham coming up the 1st pitch
Graham heading up the 2nd pitch
Me heading up and right on the 3rd pitch
Graham heading up the 4rth pitch
Looking back down just below the summit, the clouds came in and out that day
Graham and I on the summit
Rapping the cornice
This route seemed to provide a little bit of everything, from great one stick styrofoam ice to manky snow that seemed to barely hold your body weight to fairly significant runouts and thinly covered rock. The conditions for this route can also be quite fickle, last time I tried it we were able to use mostly screws but this time the styrofoam ice, which placed tools beautifully,did not really take any screws they basically pulled straight out. I would definitely recommend others to check this route out if they are looking for a challenging nearby winter alpine adventure. The longish approach tends to make this, or other routes on the Lions, a fairly long day.