Trip: Slesse - NE Buttress (bypass)
After a good day on Roan wall and Salish Peak earlier in the summer, David and I were psyched to get on something bigger. We set our sights on Slesse.
I tried to sabotage our trip by leaving critical gear in Seattle and not noticing its absence until a gas station just south of Bellingham, but David patiently turned around and my wife drove north with the gear so we could meet in the middle. After a two hour delay we were back in Bellingham and headed across the border.
The NE Buttress of Slesse has been on my list for years, but the treacherous Pocket Glacier has kept me away. Some years there was only a week between the time it slid off the slabs and the onset of our fall deluge. The past two years, it didn’t slide off at all. The warm, sunny August this year did the trick. Nonetheless, descriptions of the N Rib suggested a longer, more sustained route that might have less glacier hazards than the NE Buttress route. We hoped to do the N Rib but were willing to change plans on the fly if necessary. Change plans we did.
David’s GPS led us right to the proper parking spot, 5.6km up the road per McLane. There are nasty water bars on the road, but we passed them in David's trusty Toyota. Unfortunately, he hit a bison in Wyoming late at night a few weeks prior. Sleep-deprived, David pulled over to assess the damage.
Surprisingly, everything worked, but David worried that the beast might be dying in the bush, so he set out to euthanize it with his 3 inch utility knife. Fortunately for everyone, it was completely unhurt and ambled off into the night.
At 2:30am we arrived at the parking spot for Slesse, but we couldn’t find the trail. A side road to a campsite seemed right, but it wasn’t far enough from the parking spot and there was no trail or log leading across the river. We hiked back down the road in case we’d gone too far. We trampled around in the forest a bit and debated what to do. At 3:30am we left the car for good and crossed the creek near the campsite. This was the site of an old bridge, and we hoped there would be an overgrown logging road on the far side we could follow. Wrong.
We bushwhacked through dense, unfriendly greenery up the side of the mountain well into the night.
Bushwhacking is something many of us experience but few write about, perhaps because we’re eager to put those prickly memories out of our ever-optimistic minds. A few questions may assess the ugliness of the endeavor. Can you see the ground beneath your feet or are you surfing on greenery? Are there prickers? Is it dark? Are you lost? Are there high consequences if you fall? Is there rain or other inclement weather? Are you carrying a heavy pack with an iceax or other items that catch on the shrubbery? Are you traveling downhill (best), uphill (worse), or sidehill (worst)? How far can you see? There are a few grading scales, but the reality is that we compare each new experience to past sufferfests.
...............Begin Alaska tangent..................
My worst experience was on Chichagoff Island in southeast Alaska, where it took us five hours to cover a single kilometer between Kook Lake and Basket Bay. The area had been clearcut a few years prior, and a tsunami of prickers had risen up to 15 feet high over trash logs, holes, boulders, and a tumbling creek. For hours, we clung to prickers while sliding across slippery thin logs we couldn’t see above gaps of unknown depth and character. It was mentally and physically exhausting, but there was another way: 4ft high by 2ft wide bear tunnels worn by large Alaskan Brown (not black) bears. We hesitated, then hunched over and entered, singing at the top of our lungs to warn any oncoming bears of our presence. At one point, we emerged from a tunnel into a 30ft diameter clearing around a large stump. Like a hedge maze out of Edward Gory, there were just two ways to leave this space: through the tunnel we’d taken or through a similar one on the opposite side. We stopped singing to catch our breath and drank the last of our water. At that moment, a 1200 pound Alaskan brown bear emerged from the tunnel we’d been about to enter. He was twenty feet away from us with a dense wall of green prickers all around us. It was a roman lion/slave cage match, and we were the slaves.
This is a stock photo that belongs to Alaska Freeze Frame, but you get the idea.
This male, who looks about 8ft tall, is about the same size as the one we encountered.
In North America we have three species of bears. Polar bears (Ursus maritimus) live close to the Arctic Circle and grow to 1500 pounds. They are true carnivores that hunt seals and have been known to hunt and eat people when given the chance. Black bears (Ursus americanus) live in much of the US and Canada and grow up to 350 pounds. They are opportunistic omnivores who eat almost anything they can find, including berries and human foods scored from campers, cars, and landfills. Grizzly bears (Ursus arctos) live in parts of the Northwestern US and Canada and grow to about 500 pounds. Brown bears (also Ursus arctos) are closely related to grizzlies, but they live in the wet coastal areas of Alaska and British Columbia and grow to 1500 pounds, fueled by a protein-rich diet of salmon.
We faced a large, beautiful Alaskan brown bear with black and brown markings like a Doberman. We shouted and hopped up onto the stump, adrenaline pumping. The bear, just twenty feet away, stood on its hind legs to get a better view and whiff of its next meal. Despite scary bear tales you may have read, the vast majority of brown, black, or grizzly bears are left-leaning hippy pacifists who only attack humans when defending their cubs, truly starving, or suffering serious mental derangement. This fine fellow had an abundance of berries and was eagerly awaiting the arrival of spawning salmon. Content we weren’t a threat, he dropped to all fours and ambled unhurriedly into the tunnel from which we’d just emerged. We were alone again, but we were faced with a question: should we A - enter the tunnel where the bear emerged, B - enter the one he’d just entered, or C - schwack straight through the wall of heinous prickers? We chose A and encountered four more brown bears on the way to Basket Bay. None were quite as close or exhilarating as that first encounter. On the return, we found an old logging road and got back to our boat on Kook Lake in about fifteen minutes.
...............End Alaska tangent and return to Slesse report..................
Our Slesse night bushwhack is now in the number 2 spot. A few snippets: Sidehill slide alder surfing with an overnight pack is two parts Yoga and one part CrossFit. The can of tomato juice I planned to stash at the memorial for our return trip was crushed in my pack. Drip, drip. Compared to the stinging prickers we encountered, Devil’s Club is downright friendly. I’ve already erased all other memories of those hours. At 6:45am, daylight revealed that we were still not anywhere near where we needed to be. We reluctantly decided to bail and began heading down. A few minutes later, we came to the most open terrain we had found yet: a talus field with dense lichen.
It was a welcome reprieve, so we paused to rest a few minutes.
I could hear a decent sized creek in a canyon to the South, and we thought it might be one shown on a map in our McLane guide. The map suggested the approach trail should be on the other side. I convinced David we should traverse through prickers, cross the creek, and look for the trail.
We weaved our way through nasty brush to a narrow slot of waterfalls.
We scrambled down some very slippery rocks.
And crossed on a small log over another set of falls.
We entered the stubbly forest on the other side and at 8:30am, five hours after leaving the car, we reached the real trail right at the sign marking the Slesse memorial site.
This felt like a huge victory. The sun came out, the air was still, and the immense East Face of Slesse loomed above us.
The sun was shining. Our outlook had changed from dim to bright.
Wildflowers were blooming.
We decided not to go for the N Rib given the late hour, so we made our way up to the propeller cairn.
It was after 10am so we decided to shoot for the NE Buttress bypass.
The bulk of the Pocket Glacier lies melting in the basin now, so we felt safe to head up to the bypass.
We crossed to the notch, dropped down to the remnants of the Pocket Glacier and prepared to head to the bypass ramp visible at left.
The ice was quite hard and I was glad to have my new crampons.
We crossed, removed crampons quickly, and dashed between large blocks
Across and up the open slabs.
The walls above the Pocket Glacier are gorgeous granite.
We started up the bypass ramp at 11:30, roping up at an exposed grassy step around.
It seems silly to measure the ramp in pitches, as I can't imagine anyone would stop to belay.
We scrambled to the base of a gendarme, soloed easy terrain to its left, and finally arrived at some real climbing.
I lead a lovely 5.8 thin crack in a leaning dihedral.
This is the top of that pitch, with the gendarme in the background.
It's worth noting that we brought several route descriptions with us. Each was different and none seemed to match the terrain we encountered. This is a big mountain. You need to trust your instincts and follow what you believe is the correct path. We stayed on the ridge crest when possible.
David led vertical a 5.9 pitch on some very clean rock with wild flakes. Apparently others escape around to the right to bypass this. I don't see why (no pics).
I looked up to see one of the four horsemen of the apocalypse galloping past.
Or was it a samurai on a winged dragon?
After David's pitch, we scrambled up to the base of the next pitch we might belay.
Looking back, we were glad we hadn't tried to cross the North Slesse Glacier to get to the North Rib. It looked nasty.
I was keen to follow a striking, clean fingercrack just left of the crest. It sure looked well-traveled,
but after 15 feet it was choked in moss. I had to hang on the rope through the steepest parts, digging out moss for hand and gear placements.
Underneath the vegetation, the line was solid 5.10 on great rock with fantastic exposure down the E Face.
David followed cleanly and then led a very nice 5.9 pitch also just left of the crest.
We don't think either of these pitches had been climbed before, but you never know. Route descriptions suggest people scramble up easier ground right of the crest in this section. The two pitches we led are pretty clean now. I would highly recommend them. They're not contrived at all.
David's pitch ended at a semi-hanging belay below the 5.9+/5.10a crux pitch. He was keen to take that pitch and led it in good style.
Sunset, dusk, and twilight settled in while I belayed.
I led a moderate pitch in the dark to reasonably flat terrain, where we decided to bivy.
The weather had been perfect, with cool temps and no wind. Fortunately, the night was pretty warm and calm as well.
I was toasty in my down bag.
We slept in until sunrise.
5.7 for breakfast.
I belayed and did some stretching and calisthenics to get the blood moving in the morning light.
I could see from the shadow of the ridge that we still had a lot of ground to cover. We'd bivied just below the vertical step. The large flat area just above that step is the main bivy site.
Next, I led a simul-climbing block of about 600 feet.
David led a pitch that started on a nice crack and then passed some loose blocks.
I led off on another simul-climbing block and managed to cover the final six hundred feet to the summit.
It was runout and the ropedrag was heinous at the end, but I was in the zone and had summit fever.
The rock on the upper mountain is highly featured, so even steep sections are pretty easy, but there isn't a lot of gear.
At the top, I didn't have any slings or carabiners left, so I tied a loop of rope around a large block and belayed David up.
We changed into our tennis shoes, ate and drank, and soaked in the sunshine.
Two guys came up the NW Face while we were there. After chatting briefly, we decided to descend by rapping that route.
Past a cool looking spire.
Looking up at the NW face, which unfortunately doesn't have great rock quality.
We got a rope stuck for a few minutes on our last rap, but I was able to free it by scrambling up an adjacent gully and jerking from a different angle.
We never thought seriously about heading down to Slesse Creek, although the guys we met on the summit offered to drive us around to our car.
It was a gorgeous afternoon
We'd read about the crossover descent, and looked at it during our ascent,
but the sun was zipping toward the horizon so now we had to bang it out right quick.
I really, REALLY did not want to end out trip the way we started, so our goal was to reach the marked trail before dark.
We hit the first notch, then traveled on the ridge crest or its West side. There are good descriptions out there ( Jeremy Frimers crossover descent map and beta ).
Views back toward the NE Buttress were impressive.
This blowup shows our bivy below the vertical 5.7 pitch, and the main bivy site just above it.
At the second notch, we were able to avoid hard snow
by staying in the moat above it
And then rapping past the steepest section.
We crossed over to the East side of the ridge before Crossover Pass. Stay high.
Curious painted rocks mark a spot where you drop down on the West side again right before crossover pass.
We cruised down talus next to this snow field before climbing back to the aptly named Crossover Pass,
where you cross to the East side for the final time.
Alpenglow at Crossover Pass
When you enter the final basin, stay way left. I tried boot skiing the long tongue of snow, but my edgeless sneakers didn't work well.
We followed a few cairns left (North) of the end of the snow tongue and then encountered the first flagging on the crossover trail just as twilight faded into night. Perfect!
The trail was very faint in a few places, but it was pretty well marked, particularly once we dropped into the forest.
Steep, packed pine needles were quite treacherous, but we were safely on the trail and didn't care.
We crossed the creek and soon found ourselves back at the Memorial sign
The caffeine pill David had given me kicked in and I told stories all the way down to the final (correct) creek crossing.
and then we trotted down the road to the car, arriving around 10pm. We crossed the border and headed for Haggen in Bellingham, but not before one last adventure:
As we pulled up to an intersection, we saw a woman lying face down in a pool of blood in the middle of the road, tangled up in her bicycle. We stopped and got out to help her. David donned latex gloves and started to tend to her. I called 911. In the next few minutes, we learned that she was drunk, had fallen on her face of her own accord, and didn't want anything to do with the police. She crawled, walked, and then biked away as fast as she could. The emergency vehicles showed up seconds later, but their subject had left. She probably woke up with a splitting headache and a mess of crusty blood the next morning, wondering what happened.
We got to Seattle at 3am. I showered, crashed, and headed off to work a few hours later.
Double rack to #2 camalot, single #3, crampons, ax.
Park at 5.6km per McLane, but then walk about half a mile on the road, take a spur road right (straight - the main road makes a steep switchback if you miss this), continue another half mile or so to a marked trail. Now you're golden.
Jeremy Frimers crossover descent map and beta ).