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NE Buttress of Slesse TR

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Trip: NE Buttress of Slesse TR


Date: 8/16/2003


Trip Report:

Well it all started with my partner having to back out on our big trip we had planned to the high Sierras. Apparently his commitments at work couldn't allow enough days off, with the sluggish economy and all, so big stuff on Temple crag and maybe the Croft traverse would have to wait until another time.


So that left the question, what to climb? What's big and kewl with bivy ledges on the route, from some viewpoints a distinct spire, has lot's of technical climbing, a remote aspect and absolutely no walk up? In a word, Slesse. I'd already done it once, but usually prefer the second ascent of most climbs and my partner in spite of many years of hard climbing in the NW had never been up Slesse by any route.


The first time I climbed it we did the Slesse creek trail descent, so this time just to try something different it was decided to do the Crossover descent. A week before the climb with nothing better to do, a recon of the crossover descent was undertaken. Reversing the descent I climbed to where the descent leaves the Crossover ridge. This went pretty well and gave the opportunity to cairn some key points along the way in case of weather or darkness. A hidden rock gully was also found on the way up, which dramatically decreased the amount of bushwhacking necessary. It would have been near impossible to find on the way down as you wouldn't have known it was even there.


On this recon an attempt was also made to discern which was the safest route to the toe of the buttress. At about 4 hour intervals something would break off and come crashing down from one or another of the hanging glaciers on this side of Slesse. It looked like there was a narrow section directly below the toe that would have the least objective hazard, however in the case of the largest of calvings that even this area would not be out of danger.


So we leave Seattle Monday evening, and in spite of almost being turned back at the border for no passports, we arrive at the trailhead by dark. Hey, I thought a drivers license was enough?, apparently not with the advent of 911. I turn in early but the partner is up sorta late getting his stuff ready as he just got off work. We awake about 4:00 am and set off up the trail about 5:00. It's a nice grade, an old logging road, something good for climbers past there prime to warm up on. Don't forget though, once you go over the hill you begin to pick up speed, the only question is, which direction are you speeding in?


You can't see Slesse on the drive in or from the trailhead, only after some time on the trail do you finally view that magnificent peak and it's beautifully long curving buttress. We stop for a breather at the memorial plaque and contemplate this huge climb which we soon will be committing to, but the weather and time are on our side, at least at this point, and we quickly drop down into the lower cirque for the final part of the approach. We dawdle a little going through the debris field of the plane crash, it seems every time you go through here you find some piece you haven't seen before. This time my partner finds an old leather shoe, the first time I've seen direct evidence of the human aspect of the crash. It's sort of hard to go through here and not be moved in some way.


Soon we come to the steep cliff of the lower cirque headwall. We pick a line that looks like it has the least objective hazard and climb this 5.0 section. It's about a pitch of steep smoothish rounded steps with no plant life and many rock scars, it's seems good to solo this exposed section as a sort of test to the commitment higher up. We then proceed across the slabs up to the base of the climb. I don't remember going all out through these cliffs and slabs, we just proceeded at a normal pace through here. I think we would have picked up the pace if we'd known what was soon to happen.




There is some question as to which approach and route has more objective hazard. Either the bypass version or the direct climb starting at the toe. At first I thought that even with some of the pocket glacier left that there was little hazard going straight to the toe. After the recon and the second climb however I don't think this is true. However under the conditions I've seen it seems that the direct start involves less time in the exposure zone. Also under certain conditions, like when the pocket glacier is gone but the smaller glacier up and left of the pocket glacier is still present then the bypass is definitely more hazardous. The first time I climbed it this smaller glacier came off and came down across the bypass route.


EmCay got the first lead as it was the crux of the lower buttress and he had his full on rock shoes, myself only equipped with my guide-tens, having decided to go light as possible. It's a fun little cracky slab, the best pitch of the lower section. I told him where I thought the belay was but he ended being just right of that location as he was looking for shade. Apparently the heat wave predicted for western Washington was making itself be known up into Canada. It was about eight and you could already really feel the cooking coming on, and who wants to carry 3 quarts on technical ground? I got the next full on bushwhack pitch although I've never seen all the moss that Becky describes, and there is actually only a couple bushes you have to climb through and luckily ended in a shady tree. EmCay got the pitch with the hand crack that goes up onto the slabs but diverted before that crack seeking the shade. We crossed the slabs and worked our way up to the trees, luckily always finding shade at the belays.


Somewhere along here, maybe the bushwhack section, the bypass glacier started a serious round of calving. The first time it hit our slab traverse (into the toe of the buttress) with a pretty good fusillade of icy chunks up to about basketball size. It looked like you could have dodged back and forth a bit and maybe avoided getting hit. About 20 minutes later, just like I've read described before, there was a shudder in the air. Something unleashed, moving, you can't quite put your finger on it... and then the ungodly crashing commences. A large section of the bypass glacier shears off and comes thundering down the slabs, gaining speed and force, it separates into very many sized ice chunks up to a meter wide and proceeds to completely and utterly obliterate our slab approach and the steep pitch of the cirque headwall. Timing is everything that matters. A few minutes slower out of bed, some unexpected hang-up on the approach, two climbers would have been crushed senseless, smashed off the slabs and hurled down the cliffs below. Dead... f**king... meat! Well here we go on up, dup dup de dup, luckily we shouldn't have to cross that again. Sort of gives just a little extra incentive to get up and off the back side of this thing.


It is duly noted that of the three times going to this area this is the largest and closest spacing time wise that the glaciers have calved off, and the only thing different this time was the unusual heat. Having always thought that cliff glacier calving was most closely related to a time aspect only, this thought enforced by a 4:00 am calving on the previous recon to the area, this thought may be re-evaluated to include weather. Specifically heat as a probable trigger to large calvings, especially on smaller glaciers, maybe specifically on slabs.


We started simuling as soon as we hit the trees but made the mistake of not short roping, the full length of the 10.5 60 stratos and the terrain conspired to add a lead weight to my efforts. Nothing like some 5.0 in the sun while dragging a 50 pound anchor uphill. We stopped, coiled the rope and proceeded soloing through this 5.0 section, something highly recommended, not much exposure and lots of dirt. The amount of dirt in this section is more readily climbed with a shoe sole with some kind of tread. Even with the guide tens somewhat knobby sole there's quit a bit of slip sliding going on. EmCay's feet slip in this section and catching himself with his hands says he felt his shoulder pull partially out of the socket. It's troubling news and hoped it isn't serious, a retreat would be gripping to say the least, with only one 60 and the objective death crossing waiting with a sharp scythe below.


We reach the Gendarme at the base of the first technical pitch past the trees. This pitch is sort of run-out and kind of loose, once again EmCay gets the call with the better shoes and besides it's his turn anyway. We decide to belay right below the climbing quite a ways over from the gendarme although we really have to scrounge a belay here. He dispatches it quickly, even 5.7 will get your attention if you add looseness and no gear, it gets better after about 30 feet and he reaches the good bivy ledges of the next pitch. This was the high point on the first day of the first time I climbed it so we're feeling good as it's only about three o'clock. Another good story about only a small patch of very dirty snow for melting and a stove pot that got dropped off the ledge and by sheer luck got caught with the feet could be told here, but that's a story of and for another day.


I proceed up the steep diagonal hand crack, a very nice pitch but not that enjoyable this time due to the oppressive heat. Your down to your shorts and climbing vertical with a 20 pound pack. It's hot even in the shade, our 2 quarts of water each is almost gone. You could see the snow up on the big bivy ledges from high on the recon a week ago, but since then the majority of the bypass glacier is gone and you can't see the big bivy ledge snow from anywhere on the regular approach or route, you just have to go on being thirsty and hoping it's there.


It seems though that we might be short on time, we've done 8 easy pitches in 7 hours and have 7 harder pitches to go with about 6 hours of good light. So we definitely can't slow down in spite of the fact that it's getting steeper and we're parched and about out of water. This is where we pull a couple rabbits out a da hat. Specifically two radios, walkie talkies if you will. I used them on one climb about a year ago but we were nursing the batteries and didn't get the full effect. We've been using them all along on this climb, but at this point they finally come into their own. We start seriously running the 60 to the limit bypassing the next two normal belays with a bit of coordinated simuling in a couple easy spots. EmCay ends up on a irregular hanging belay on the long hand crack before the spot where you crossover the crest. Consequently I then run the next two pitches together also. "Half way", "copy", "25 feet", "copy", "that's it", " need about 10 feet to a good belay, easy ground, will you simul?", "yes" No yelling yourself hoarse and wondering if he really said "off belay" or not, you can fine tune your effort and cut your time with superior communication. If the belays are there your can run a 60 every time no problem. Not being one who usually advocates much of anything, will say that I won't go on another big wall without a radio.


The pitch that crosses the crest is a really kewel one, you climb this long slabby hand crack and then some dicey, sort of run-out face, up to the ridge crest. At that point you step out over this huge exposure to a delicate steep rising traverse and a hanging belay below vertical steepness above. Becky notes a "wild view into the Heart of Darkness" above this point, but I think this is where you actually first get that awesome steep exposure.


EmCay gets the first really steep pitch with the supposed 5.10 finger crack, which I've never found. He's been climbing mostly granite the last few years and it's his first experience with the metamorphic upper section of Slesse, so he's a little bit hesitant at first when confronted with holds that look totally detached but are actually quite solid. Not that there isn't some looseness on this climb, but it does have these rocks that look like their just perched on the cliff but are actually totally and solidly attached underneath. Another characteristic that takes some getting used to is the run-outs. It seems wherever the climbing gets harder than 5.7 or so the pro is always there, but many times when it gets easier the pro gets sort of sparse in places. Once you get the lead head on, this kind of speeds up things anyway as your not slowing down to overly protect the 5.5 bits.


We're dry as a bone and really feeling dehydration's effects. "Can you see any snow", "no", "copy", "you should be able to see it by now", "copy", "let me know when you see it". EmCay gets the long steep pitch to the "gigantic bivy platform" of the 14th (Becky). It's a long vertical pitch and he doesn't see the snow till he pulls the top of the vertical..... "I see snow about 100 feet up", "copy" "please repeat that, do we have snow for melt water?" silence..... "is there snow?" silence..... sometimes EmCay likes to rattle my chain I think, but I don't mind.


I follow and pull the last of the vertical section....SNOW!!!!! We scramble up another 50 feet to the most spacious ledges on a route with many ledges, with big bunches of SNOW another 50 foot scramble higher up. The sun is about to set as we break out our bivy stuff and gather some snow for melting. No don't touch that, it's my stove and I know your perfectly competent, but if this canister has a funky connection and blows, I want it to be nobodies fault but mine. Luckily the stove works without a hitch, and... we... have... WATER!! Maybe that's why big alpine is so much different from other types of climbing, it distills life down into it's most basic parts. Time, sunlight, darkness, weather, rock, food, water. Water ahhh water, usually running from a tap with not a thought, but now precious, sparse, and life sustaining, not even remotely unappreciated or taken for granted. Water water water. And then some food, just a plain bagel with maybe some olive oil, heaven, a feast fit for kings. A piece of salmon, or some hot tea, a bit of cheese, a fruit cup?...a banquet from the gods.




We watch the sun set and view the surrounding mountains in the serene evening light, comfortable and secure tied into our perch in the sky, drinking, eating and melting snow. It's late by the time were done melting for water, one quart for the night and 2 for the next day each. "How's the arm?" " I think it's gonna be ok." Just before sleep we are treated to a display of northern lights far up in Canada, a little icing on a cake of the surreal. We sleep well and wake early, refreshed for the hard day ahead.


We simul the 3 or so pitches to the start of the harder climbing at the base of the final headwall. We each take a lead and it works out about right. I get the leaning pillar and dispatch it quickly in spite of some looseness. This route gets climbed enough that the really loose stuff is gone and if you run across some you may be off route. EmCay gets the rotten pillar but stays close to the crest where the gear and rock are better, he runs 2 together here also. The pitches start to seem to get longer and drag on forever, our energy isn't what it once was. At least the day has been cool and in the shade for the most part unlike the previous.




At some point along here idle chat turns to what would happen if you dropped your pack. Being from the Nelson school of going light as possible you really can't afford to lose anything. With the hot weather your down to your shorts, if a pack was dropped it would mean suffer city in a big way. The conversation ends with "I don't want to think about it" and from then on when handling them the packs are held with an extra emphasis on the death grip. Shortly after this though I loose grip of my sun glasses and they start rolling down the sloped ledge we're on right into the hands of my partner, sometimes luck is on your side.


I get the "incredible 5.8" with the loose roof, which is one of the stellar pitches on the route. Your supposed to go to the higher ledge at the top of this pitch but it gets missed by a tiring climber. Once again the radios save the day, the next pitch has an easy last bit to a good ledge but we have to simul a bit to reach it. EmCay has overcome his apprehension of the different rock and conditions and is sending every 60 meter pitch thrown at him. Fittingly he ends up with the final one to the summit and we climb onto that much coveted yet sparsely visited domain. Ahh summits, one of the finer benefits of alpine climbing. We soak in the views for as long as we think we can spare, snap a couple of photos and have some idle chat. Then heading off for the rappels, for every alpine climber knows the summit is only half the way home.


This initial descent is difficult to say the least and involves a bit of route finding and exposed scrambling bordering on technical ground for quite a ways. Not something you'd want to try in the dark or limited visibility unless you'd been there before. A running description would be.... scramble across the summit to a cairned descent trail past decoy rappels to two 25 meter raps, scramble down and across about 400 feet to a traverse ledge, some low 5th and more decoy rappels. Traverse the ledge to a gully with 2 more 25 meter raps to another ledge traverse ending in a low 5th down-climb past one more rap point and into a long loose gully that finally gets you on less steep terrain and the trail.


This is where the two options for the descent branch off from each other. We passed the trail which is a very dry and steep affair which ends at a road from which you still have to ride a bike or whatever another 15 miles or so, or 25 miles if you forget to take the car keys when you first head out on the bike, don't ask! We decided to take the more direct but more technical crossover descent since it's what we had planned and we still seemed to have the energy, time and weather.


We just got lucky hitting all the notches, because there were several along the ridge where only one way would go. It wouldn't have been bad to back up and try the others but it just seemed to go pretty smoothly. There was some pretty steep snow and the technical hikers weren't optimum for kicking steps but the conditions couldn't have been better and with an arrest rock in either hand we proceeded down snow slopes with ever increasingly cold fingers. Looking back on the snow slopes we laughed at how heinous the foreshortening made them appear and marveled at the one path through vertical walls of rock.




Along the traverse at some point it became apparent that it was really going to be a worthwhile experience. The views of Slesse and the buttress are premier from this angle as it appears as a sharp pointed symmetrical spire with the profile of the buttress in it's entirety laid out before you on the skyline.




And then suddenly and unwittingly, at least on my part, our necks were slipped back into the noose. From the high bivy ledge EmCay had observed a possible way to climb around the suggested rappel on the Crossover descent. When we came upon it, it appeared at first inspection to be a relatively easy drop, traverse, and ascend around steep cliffs. It was an exposed heather and grass slope about 45 to 50 degrees with a distinct death drop off at vertical cliffs below. "This looks do-able", are the famous last words. The drop down part was easy with soft dirt to kick steps but then it got scary. The traverse section consisted of really short and small heather completely covering the ground. Not substantial enough to grab onto, but thick and hard and smooth enough to make it very difficult to kick any steps into the dirt. The tech hikers weren't biting in hardly at all, so I grabbed the titanium cleaning tool and started making hard stabs into the turf for a self belay. This gave just enough confidence to keep from turning around, which with our dwindling time would have been a unfavorable option. Even with the tool it was so gripping that the steep rock above was tried although this slowed the progress even more. Although steeper, at least it was something substantial to hold onto above the slippery exposure. Meanwhile hardman EmCay was waltzing across, apparently his more substantial hikers were getting a better bite, or maintaining a cooler head, he never even stopped to bring out his cleaning tool for arrest. We finally reached the rap gully, coming in about the point where the rap would end. We still had to cross the gully and it didn't look like there was any place to set an anchor, so wanting to get off our little face of death traverse forthwith I headed across the gully and thankfully reached the other side after more steep and somewhat loose rock to be happily greeted by, of all things, a continuation of the descent trail. I then felt the need to scream out loud and subsequently did just that.... NECK OUT OF THE NOOSE! Safely off this little scenic flirting with death bit we made idle chat about what it would be like if you fell. Would you be able to arrest a heinous slide down the slippery slope with a mere cleaning tool? Or if you like fell on your back would your pack just act like a greased skid and send you, gathering speed, off to get the chop? He was rattling my chain again, I just know it.


So we continue down an indistinct trail, some snow and talus slopes and then are faced with the final climb up and around the backside of Stumpy hill. It's a variation on the Crossover descent. On the recon it was felt that going behind Stumpy would be easier and less exposed than going in front of it. So now we are faced with the foreshortening effect making the climb up the backside of Stumpy look quite formidable. But it goes easily and we gain the pass north of Stumpy and find our cairn. One rap down from the pass we land just below a large chockstone but not quite off the difficulties, We forgo another rap and jump on steep snow with an arrest rock in each hand. It goes well in spite of our tiring condition, and we gain easy slopes below. The light is fading as we pass the most beautiful Japanese gardens area on the benches below the crossover ridge. Waterfalls and cascades down water worn granite, topped with banzai evergreens sculpted by the effects of the wind and snow. Clear water carved rock pools surrounded by wildflowers and many varieties of vegetation. Serene garden tours, another of the benefits of alpine adventure.


Darkness approaches and we don't drop down enough before traversing, the next landmark is missed as we stumble and bushwhack through the gathering gloom. Luckily a landmark tree is spotted and we find the big granite boulder field of the recons bivy spot. EmCay suggests another bivy and seems to think I'm going to be disappointed if we take another night.... NOT, in fact I was going to bring it up myself! I ask, what about the wife and the doghouse? Aren't you supposed to be back tonight? Don't worry my friend, I've been in the doghouse off and on for 20 years. One more night is not going to matter. So we accept a leisurely pace, being over the hill we're not going to participate in speed events any more and couldn't compete if we wanted to anyway. We search out flat spots and settle down for a night among the boulders, marmots, and mosquitos. Sharing the last of our food we settle down to sleep accompanied by the sounds of snowmelt cascades and crashing glaciers.




Morning breaks, another clear day with the magnificent Slesse in the colored lights of dawn. We pack up and head down past more cairns and landmarks. A small brook that was followed on the recon has dried up and sections are nearly indistinguishable even in the light of day. So apparently the call to bivy at dark was an accurate one. We find the steep hidden rock gully and proceed down to the basin without incident, once more crossing the debris field we linger, taking some photos of the shattered pieces of plane. We descend the trail accompanied by alpine flies who seem to prefer the scent of GU. We've embarked on a great experience and returned relatively unscathed but certainly not unaffected, and now it's back to the ho-hum of everyday life. Stopping one last time to wave bye to Slesse and that all too brief respite... until next time.




all Photos


Buckaroo's Gallery


Edited by Feck

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Great TR. Someday I'll print this in small font and mutter as I squint in the fading light, "so is this the decoy rap or the first 25m rap?"


Dehydration is a beyotch.

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