Slesse Mountain 8002ft (2439m)
British Columbia, Canada
Complete Northeast Buttress (5.9, A1, Bushwack II)
July 24-26, 2012
Adam Greenstreet and I completed a longtime goal of climbing the classic Complete Northeast Buttress of Slesse Mountain over three incredible days. We had made it as far as the Nesakwatch Creek last summer but between the washed out road, pouring rain, and using an outdated description of the approach made it an relatively easy decision to pull the plug and spend three days climbing in Squamish.
But this year we had a newly graded road (although the berms make a high clearance vehicle a necessity), a great weather forecast, and an accurate approach description! Adam spend Monday night at my house so we could leave early Tuesday morning. We made good time to the Sumas border crossing and arrived in Chilliwack at 9:30am and made a stop at London Drug to pick up some film for me and a digital camera for Adam. Now we were fully prepared to not only get to our mountain and climb our intended route but also to record the event.
When we turned off the Chilliwack River Road onto the Nesakwatch Forest Service Road we were expecting to have to hike up a few kilometers to the trail but the road has been completely rebuilt. There are about twenty deep troughs/berms that have been dug to divert water so low clearance vehicles will have some trouble getting over these. In my Highlander I found that crossing these at a 45 degree angle prevented us from bottoming out.
We had to laugh when we saw the post marking the "Slesse Memorial Trail". If we had followed the washed out road instead of following a four-wheeler trail last year, we would have found the river crossing no problem! We spent a few minutes at the car putting on our approach shoes and packing in last minute items. We talked about what gear we wanted to bring and if we should bring the Alpine Select guide book since neither of us were able to make photo copies of the route description. Adam had the bright idea of taking pictures of the route description with his new digital camera! Brilliant!
Adam had a few pitons and I suggested that we wouldn't need them, and to just leave them behind. I had brought my 60meter, 8.9mm Serenity rope, and Adam supplied the rack. It consisted of a set of stoppers, 3 small BD micronuts, and a set of C4s from .5 up to 3 ( doubled in the .75-2 sizes), three C3's (green, red, yellow), the orange and blue master cams, and three small TCU's and UltraLights. Mentally I noted that there was a startling omission of hexes and tri-cams! Oh well, you climb the route with the rack you have so off we went.
We followed the wet, brushy trail down to the river and found several options to cross. We opted for the larger log with the chicken wire stapled to the flattened top! Once on the other side we bushwacked back up river until we picked up the trail again. We were surprised how gently the trail climbed up through the dense forest. I had expected a steep "climbers" trail. After a kilometer or two the forest canopy opened enough to present stellar views of sub peaks in the Slesse ridge. I at first thought that one of the peaks, might be Slesse from a foreshortened aspect but in the end we decided it was just too small to be our goal.
After another kilometer or so we came around a corner and the mountain in front of us left no doubts. Here was Slesse Mountain with it's huge Northest Buttress snaking it's way down from the summit. Adam and I both exclaimed our amazement with this incredible mountain. We continued up the trail passing the Crossover trail junction on our right. At the Memorial honoring the victims of the 1956 airline crash we were treated with a view of our entire route.
We took off our packs and I bushwacked over the ridge to the bottom of the cirque. I came back up to Adam and we decided to push forward and try to make it up onto the toe of the buttress as far as we could. Although it was early afternoon, the Bypass Glacier and the North Slesse Glacier were both very quiet. So we made a bee line for the the short rocky step to the left of a waterfall coming down on the right. The cirque contained all the avalanche debris from the previous winter and it was clear that this was not a place to be at the wrong time. Knowing that the glaciers above us could let loose a huge block of ice at anytime, we tried to stay on the right where we would be a little more protected. We stopped at a stream and filled up our water bottles just in case we didn't find water on the route. The further we got up the cirque, the clearer our choice became on how to exit the cirque. At the head of the cirque, we put on our crampons and made our way up to the rocky buttress dividing the cirque and the upper snowfield at the foot of the NEB. Near the top of the rocks I spied an old, tattered, fixed line. We were on the right track. At the top of the rocks while we were putting our crampons back on, I snapped a quick picture of Adam with the North Slesse Glacier behind him.
Soon we were on the ledges at the base of the Northeast Buttress. Mid-afternoon is not exactly the time to be climbing up the drainage between two unstable glaciers, but our risk had paid off. Now we were on our route making progress instead of wasting most of a day bivying at the Memorial. Adam took the first pitch and lead up a crack system on the right side of the buttress. This turned out not to be the route, so he carefully downclimbed back to the ledge. We moved left 50 feet and found another left facing crack system that ended at a fixed pin below a wet roof. Here we did a tension traverse over to the right where we were able to continue up. Right before Adam did the traverse we heard the terrible sound of ice falling from above. Adam called down, "ICE!" and I immediately went to brake position with the rope and hunkered down behind the toe of the buttress. I kept calling up to Adam, "I got you!" as I heard various grunts and groans as ice pelted him. The ice chunks were fairly small so they didn't knock Adam off the route. Once it was over and I knew Adam was ok, I yelled up, "What good is climbing a buttress if you still get nailed by ice?!" Adam completed the traverse and finished the pitch without too much further excitement.
I started up the next pitch which began a consistent pattern for me: wet, mossy, vertical bushwacks. I guess I'm just lucky! It was pretty comical at times. Other times it was downright frustrating and exhausting. One particular section I lead involved grabbing hand fulls of cedar branches and yarding up on these while smearing on wet mossy slabs. I brought Adam up to one anchor that was entirely built with slung branches! I had to cut a few pitches short due to all the rope drag through the branches. We also found that a nut tool works great to scrape out dirt from small seams for micronut placements. Ah, the joys of alpine rock climbing in the Pacific Northwest!
We had hoped to simul climb some of the easier pitches on this lower part of the route, but because of the wet, mossy rock, we had to pitch out almost all of the pitches. One particualar pitch I had to aid on some marginal micronuts to get past the wet, mossy, slabs. Fun! Once above the "Magic carpet" section we were able to make steadier progress. As we climbed the views across the valley to Mt Rexford got better and better. Our higher vantage point also let us witness the shadows getting longer as the descended in the west. We hoped to make it up to the ledges where the Bypass route meets up with the Complete route, but the lower pitches had taken much longer than we had expected. As the sun was beginning to fade, Adam cruised up one pitch and called off belay. As he brought me up to the belay I already had "find a spot to bivy" on my mind. So when he said, "what do you think of these ledges to bivy on?" I said, "Great!"
I used two small, incut, ledges for my bivy site, and Adam found a small grassy depression in the slab to bivy. Soon we had our sleeping bags, mattresses, and bivy sacks all spread out and the hiss of my JetBoil was about to deliver us Lasagna for me and Sweet and Sour Pork for Adam! We were glad that we had filled up our water bottles earlier since we hadn't encountered any snow (other than Adam's icefall and he didn't have the presence of mind to grab some of it as it rained down on him!) Light and fast is all well and good, but when taking on a route this large, this early in the season, and for the first time, "Prudence is the greater form of Valor." So we came loaded for bear, so to speak. Between my Bibler bivy sack, my +45F REI Flash Sub Kilo sleeping bag, and my new REI Stratus air mattress, my whole sleeping system weighed in around 4 pounds. Not a bad trade off for a comfortable night's rest.
I say comfortable but I have to admit it wasn't the best night's sleep I've ever had in the mountains. Throughout the evening we would hear parts of the glaciers let loose and rumble down around us on either side. Since the first pitch when Adam got pummeled by the ice chunks we were concerned about what else was above us waiting to let loose. So when we heard the first thunder of falling ice we immediately looked up the route to see what we were in for. Fortunately everything that fell was to the left and right of us on the Bypass Glacier or the North Slesse Glacier.
It was very strange to hear the noise coming from above us and then below us. Ridges are really, really, good places to be! It seemed that the glaciers had become more active later in the evening than they were earlier in the afternoon when the sun was hottest. We had our theories as to why this was, but in the end we were both VERY glad that the glaciers were calm earlier in the day when we were approaching the base of the route.
As we were settling in we could see some lights far below us near the Memorial. Up to this point we had seen no evidence of other climbers that may have been on the route this season. We were excited to be on the route but I was pretty tired after the blue-collar climbing that we had to do below. So after picking out a few of my favorite constellations, we said goodnight and went to sleep.
Sleeping with your harness on and tied in wasn't as bad as I thought it might be, but at some point in the night I got fed up with my helmet and took it off. If I was going to get smashed by falling ice, at least I would be sound asleep and not notice it! It turned out that Adam had the same reasoning and took off his helmet as well. Around 6am it had been light enough for long enough that we decided to get up and start our day. I heated up some water for oatmeal as we packed up our gear. It was another beautiful day and we were pinching ourselves, half believing the incredible surroundings we had awakened to!
It really wasn't cold but the slabby terrain seemed pretty easy so I decided to wear my Ganda's for a few pitches. They did really well as made time stretching the pitches out and covering lots of ground. Adam's next pitch followed a really cool sloping hand crack that was fun once you got in it! We remembered this from the route description so we felt good that we were on route. On the next pitch Adam called down that he had discovered what had fallen on him from the day before. He belayed me up to where I could see two refridgerator-sized blocks of ice, sitting precariously on the slabs, ready to slide! One of these must of let loose and busted into a thousand pieces by the time it reached us.
From our bivy we had thought that we were fairly close to the junction of the bypass route and our route but we had quite a few pitches left. To make up time I tried to stay to climber's left where the terrain was easier. It was a but brushy in places and I had to cut a few pitches short due to rope drag but for the most part the climbing was low 5th class to 5.7. Climbing on the left side of the buttress offered us great views down to the Bypass Glacier. While the view was stellar, it was somewhat demoralizing to have been climbing for so many hours and still be on the lower buttress! But we finally reached the large trees and the ledge where the bypass route meets up. The route started to get a bit steeper here so I switched back to my Mythos. While we were taking a break I was able to get a nice shot of Adam, relaxing in the shade of a tree with a little bonsai tree in front of him. We could have stayed here all day but we had "miles to go before we sleep" so we tied back in and headed up the right side of the ridge.
We took a break here to melt some snow to fill up our water bottles since we used up most of our water at the bivy. It was really great to not feel rushed and to just enjoy the environment. From this large ledge we moved up a small corner on the right and then back left up onto a face and easier terrain. There were several pitches where most of the terrain consisted of steep, dirt, ledges. From time to time we could hear other voices to the north but we couldn't see anyone. Once we got up higher we could see two climbers on the north ridge, making their way up what appeared to be a narrow, steep, line.
Following the path of least resistance, we found ourselves at the base of a steep headwall that we determined to be the "5.10- section that takes thin nuts for gear". We also found a set of rappel anchors which we used to make a rightward, descending, rappel back down to easier terrain! From this side of the crest we had a good view of the other two climbers and gave them a wave. We commented on how small their packs were! From here the pitches were much easier until the 5.8+ strenuous lieback corner which Adam lead. I was glad to be on TR for this pitch. I had to weight the rope to clean a stuck cam, but in the end I was able to retrieve it and continue up to the large bivy ledge!
The large bivy ledge is a spectacular place! The east edge dropped off easily a thousand feet down to the pocket glacier. Adam made a large snowball and threw it over. We watched it fall for several seconds until it just went out of sight! We didn't even see it hit because it was so small. There was a huge snow drift, 20 feet long and six feet high that we used to refill our water bottles and to cook our dinners. While the Jetboil was melting snow we set up our bivy sacks, pads, and sleeping bags and took in the view. We enjoyed watching the alpenglow on Mt Rexford across the valley. Adam took some great pictures of the cloud formations to the north. We had been watching them build throughout the afternoon with concern, but they just kept moving east.
As we enjoyed our dinner we could hear the other two climbers making their way up the north ridge. It was getting dark and they had put on their headlamps. Having done our share of climbing and rappeling in the dark on our Bugaboo trip, Adam and I were very glad to be where we were!
Our level bivy sights provided a wonderful night of sleep. As a kid I would love to build a fort in our backyard right before a rainstorm. Then I would hang out with books, games, and snacks- enjoying the coziness while outside it was miserable. I got the same feeling of luxury in the midst of wilderness in my cozy, green, cocoon! We got up around 6:30 am with the sun and started boiling water for oatmeal. We were excited for the upcoming pitches and to finish this classic route.
With our camp broken down, our rucksacks loaded up, we tied back into the rope and I started us off on our third day and longest day. We simulclimbed up around a large snow patch then followed an airy ridge that continued to steepen. About 500 feet above our camp, we switched back into our Mythos and pitched out the steeper parts. Adam lead an incredibly exposed 5.8 pitch that followed up a corner, over a small roof to easier terrain. Looking down between my feet, I could see nearly the entire route sweep away far below! Adam had the same grin I had when I reached the belay! We were two kids in a candy store with a pocketful of money and no parents around!
We could see and hear the other two climbers across the way on the North Ridge. The night before they were climbing by head lamp for several pitches and we heard one of them take a leader fall when a rock they pulled on came loose. We were glad to see them making upward progress. After these two pitches the climbing eased up and we simul-climbed several pitches to the summit.
We topped out about 5 minutes before the other party making what the summit register seems to indicate were the first and second ascents of the year!The other two climbers were from Vancouver BC and had quite the epic: finishing their first day by climbing four pitches by headlamp, pulling loose a large block on lead and taking a 20' fall all to end up on a sloping slab with a minimal bivy gear. And they had to fight off Snafflehounds all night long! We got to hear/see most of this from the comfort of our massive, flat, and most comfortable ledge while eating Rice and Chicken and Roasted Chicken with Mashed Potatoes.
After taking some summit pictures, Adam and I waited around for the Canadians since I was the only one who had been on the mountain before (Thanks, Matt!) we waited for them to descend with us. They had approached via the forest crossover descent trail so we reasoned that it would be mutually beneficial for us to show them the descent off the peak and they show us the route to the crossover trail.
As it turned out though, they didn't bring crampons and had only Merrel tennis shoes, so Adam and I ended up kicking steps for them the.entire.way.down the cross over descent. Painfully slow but we all made it down to the forest by headlamp. Once we hit the forest we were hoping they could show us where the cross over trail started/ended but, alas, they could not. So after two hours of bushwhacking by headlamp (around 12:30am) we told them that we needed to split since Adam was supposed to be at work at the Leavenworth Ranger station at 7am.
We found the trail about ten minutes after we left them and about 20 minutes after that we met three search and rescue fellows from Chilliwack SAR looking for us. We were late, but not that late. But due to a miscommunication between Adam and his friend who lives in Squamish, a search got called in. Hence the photo of the SAR truck at the TH. The SAR fellows were super cool and glad that we were alright. So we graciously thanked them for coming out to look for us and apologized greatly for the miscommunication and let them know about the other two climbers (one who had taken the lead fall had injured his ankle) and might need assistance. So we continued on our way down the crossover trail while the three of them continued up.
The cross over trail was easy to follow, even at night by headlamps due to the reflectors on the trees. We met two more SAR fellows at the log crossing and they shoned very bright lights for us as we hiked across. We met two more SAR fellows in a huge radio-relay truck at the junction of the Chilliwack River Road the the Chilliwack-Slesse FSR.
So that is how our story ended. Adam missed work since we got back to Seattle around 8:30am. The End.