Last summer my good friend Kieran embarked on his first ever alpine climbing adventure. His objective? The classic Northeast Buttress of Slesse Mountain. Upon his return I excitedly asked him about his adventure and his first remarks made me laugh. ‘Man we made it to the summit and I was so stoked, but then I looked down the other side and realized, oh shit, now we have to get down’!
These are thoughts that have been thunk by many an alpinist, from the newbies to the veterans. In fact, while reading through the summit register of Serra V in the Waddington Range, I came across the entry from the 1964 first ascent of the peak. The entry read, ‘15hrs from Radiant in blizzard, how the hell do we get down?
Luckily for Kieran, the descent off of Slesse Mountain is a relatively straightforward affair, with a few hundred feet of technical descent followed by a long pleasant ridge traverse and well defined trail back to the car. But although straightforward it is long and circuitous, and when planning a link up of three routes on Slesse I knew that having an alternate option from this standard descent would be critical in moving quickly enough between routes.
With some studying of photos and taking notes from guidebooks I hashed out a plan with Brette Harrington to climb the Navigator Wall and explore descent options from the col between the South summit and Third Peaks of Slesse. The adventure that followed was a highlight of the summer. Descending through the mist we found not only the impact zone of Flight 810, but an alternate descent from Slesse that brought us directly back to the base of the wall in only 2 hours.
This descent is far more technical than the standard descent off the summit tower, however it loses elevation quickly and brings you right back to the propeller cairn where the access trail to the routes ends. This descent involves extensive 5th class downclimbing to 5.7, or multiple rappels on steep terrain and should only be attempted by experienced, highly competent parties with excellent routefinding skills. This descent also leaves one feeling ‘on the mountain’ for its entirety in contrast to the standard descent and there is some degree of objective hazard to be considered in the Southeast Gully itself. Although the technicalities and hazards involved are far from extreme, this descent should be avoided in poor weather as it follows a major watercourse.
That being said, this route brings one through highly alluring and exquisite terrain on an amazing peak. This is also by far the best descent from the South Summit after an ascent of Navigator Wall, and for any route if regaining stashed bivy gear at the propeller cairn is the objective.
For fast parties allow from up to four hours in descent from the main summit, and perhaps two to three hours from the South Summit.
For slower to average parties allow up to eight hours to descend from the main summit, and five to six from the South summit. This descent is not recommended for slower parties.
Route Description –
From the main summit of Slesse follow the standard descent route to the top of the gully dropping west below the spectacular and prominent gendarme. From this point, head due south towards the South Summit climbing down a loose 4th class couloir to reach scree terraces below the Main and South summit Col. From the col ascend the Northwest face of the South Summit, making a short rightwards traverse and low 5th class downclimb to reach more 4th class corners leading to the summit ridge of the tower.
From the summit ridge of the South Summit descend the scree basin leading south towards the Third Peak of Slesse and the Flight 810 impact zone. The scree basin gives way to 4th and 5th class ramps on the Southeast aspect of the South Ridge and two possible rappels before traversing back Southwest to the col between the South Summit and the Third Peak of Slesse. You are now at the top of the Southeast Gully.
Scramble East down the gully on 3rd and 4th class terrain until possible to break out towards the Southeast Buttress of the South Summit on 3rd class grassy terraces. Downclimb grassy terraces near but not on the Southeast Buttress, mostly 4th with short 5th class steps and possible rappels.
As height is lost a ledge sporting multiple trees near the crest of the Southeast Buttress will become visible. One option is to make three or four (single rope) rappels, beginning from one of these trees, directly to the hidden couloir leading to grassy terraces below the Navigator Wall. The rappels are steep and wild, but solid anchors are available in the way of slung horns, or leaving nuts or pitons.
The other option is to continue downclimbing grassy ledges back to the base of the Southeast Gully to its terminus at a triple fork. Cross the couloir, then downclimb into its Northeast fork on wet and slimy low 5th class terrain. The Northeast fork is the well-hidden couloir that leads towards the base of Navigator Wall and is clearly the best option at this point.
Once the hidden couloir has been gained, wet 3rd and 4th class downclimbing leads back to the grassy terraces below the intimidating Navigator Wall. Traverse these terraces into the middle of the face, then downclimb three pitches of 5th class rock to 5.7 or make rappels on fixed anchors to reach the slabs at the top of Slesse Glacier cirque. Welcome and congratulations! You have successfully descended the Southeast gully route! Make your way down the amazing slabs to your packs and hopefully your stashed beer and smokes at the propeller cairn.