April 6, 2015

Liberty Crack and Backbone Ridge

Here's one from the vault, about a couple of routes I climbed while living and working in the Cascades in the summer of 2008.

With my regular climbing partner back East for a family visit, I had to recruit another. A co-worker had some time off, so we made plans to tick two routes. We piled our gear into Mike’s car Friday evening and set off for Leavenworth. Our first objective: The Backbone Ridge (IV, 5.9) on Dragontail Peak. This rib of rock rises 2000 feet from just above Colchuck Lake to the summit. After a few hours of sleep in the parking lot we started hiking. A few more hours and we were taking off our headlamps at the lake and stashing snacks for the return hike.
Two hundred feet from the base of the route we encountered our first major obstacle, a really firm snow slope. Of course, we were in sneakers. We crossed using some chopped steps (we had one ice axe) and availing ourselves of the friction provided by debris on the snow’s surface. After the snow we kept our sneakers on and scrambled up to the base of the second pitch, which climbs a long offwidth.

Mike liking the offwidth. Note the sleeveless track jersey, his secret weapon for the wide stuff.
Most climbers do not relish offwidth cracks (cracks that are too wide for a fist, but too narrow to climb into). Climbers often abbreviate the term as “O.W.” One Joshua Tree guide claims this stands for “other way”, as in, go the other way. Because most find this crack size odious, they don’t often practice it. The upshot of this avoidance is that when mandatory offwidths are encountered climbers are unprepared and have a more difficult and unpleasant experience than they might otherwise, reinforcing their previous notions. It’s a vicious cycle. The other result of this distaste for offwidths is that they often get a harder rating than they should. A good example of this is Vertigo's “Half Moon” offwidth pitch (III 5.9, Cannon Cliff, New Hampshire). Some claim this to be the crux, but those with even a modicum of technique (and the sense to remove their pack) will find that it’s not so bad.

The offwidth on Backbone Ridge is fun. It’s in a right facing corner, which allows for stemming and hip scumming. The lower half is easily protected with mid-sized pieces and slung chockstones. After this, I pushed a big cam ahead of me for 30 feet until I could leave the offwidth for a comfy belay ledge. Easier terrain along the ridge crest and to it’s left followed. Soon we were simulclimbing up a ledge system on the Fin, a huge clean face that forms the upper part of the route. Part of the way up, Mike picked a nice looking finger crack (the actual crux of the route we took) and led us to the narrow upper edge of the Fin. From here, more simulclimbing took us to the top.

Leading on the Fin.
We lounged on the summit for an hour and a half; eating, taking pictures, goofing around, eating some more, and putting the climbing gear away. Hiking and glissading brought us to the top of Asgaard Pass, where we picked up the trail and made the 6-mile hike back to the car. Thirteen miles of hiking and 2000 feet of climbing had earned us some pizza, so we headed into Leavenworth for an overpriced pie.

Sunday morning we slept in and went for a swim. That afternoon we packed up and drove north to Washington Pass. Our objective was Liberty Crack (IV 5.10 C1), a 1200-foot aid and free route on the east face of Liberty Bell. We knew the route was going to take us a long time. Monday morning found us on our second predawn start.

We left the car at the small pond just east of the pass and followed faint climbers’ trails uphill through the woods. Horizontal bands of lighter rock partway up the face made the route easy to find. Unfortunately, another firm snow slope lay ahead. This time Mike took the lead, chopping steps with a rock until we were able to chimney down into the moat between snow and rock, with a hand and foot on each, and traverse over to the start.

We divided the route in half. The first block was mine and started with three pitches of aid climbing. I find approach shoes the best thing to wear for aid, but I wore my climbing shoes instead. Wearing them made me more inclined to get out of my aiders to make the occasional free move. Climbing shoes are also pretty uncomfortable in aiders, so there was extra motivation to get to the anchors.

The moment I started up the first pitch the mosquitoes were swarming. As I knew I would be warming up on lead, my windbreaker was off and I was just in a short-sleeved shirt. I remember none of the first pitch, just fending off the mosquitoes. As Mike jugged up to the belay I tried to think of excuses to quit. When he got there he had a positive attitude and didn’t really complain about the bugs. This gave me enough of a mental boost to keep going and the higher we got off the ground the less of an issue they became. The aid pitches were straightforward. The only marginal placements were a few fixed copperheads with frayed wires on the third pitch. The third pitch also featured the most bomber hook placement I have ever seen. I’ve read it could be bypassed with cams or nuts but why bother when a hook is easy to place and clean? One short lead of 5.10 and one long lead of 5.8 and my block ended on a ledge.
Looking down from just above “The Lithuanian Lip”, a prominent roof on pitch 2.
Mike linked two short pitches to “The Rotten Block”, a belay where it was easier to sit than stand. Next was a really long lead that started off with a little aid (Mike was glad to have an aider here) and stretched out to about halfway through what most guidebooks call pitch 9. A pitch of low fifth class chimneys followed and then Mike led what we both agreed was the best pitch of the route. It was a long left facing corner with good rock and fun, sustained climbing. Another 150 feet of low fifth class climbing and we unroped to scramble up the top of the Beckey route. On the summit we met a pair of climbers who agreed to join forces and turn two rappels into one with both of our ropes. Before long we were at the car, changing into flip-flops and strategizing how to stay awake for the long drive home.

Summit shot atop Liberty Bell.

Our rack for The Backbone:
  • 1 set of nuts
  • 1 ea. green – red Alien
  • 1 ea. #.75 – #3, #6 BD C4
Our rack for Liberty Crack:
  • 1 set of nuts
  • 1 set of HB offsets
  • #.5, #1, #1.5 Tricam
  • 1 ea. 0 TCU
  • 2 ea. #.4 - #2 BD C4 (or similar) including 2/3 and 3/4 Metolius Offset TCUs
  • 1 ea. #3, #4 BD C4
  • 1 ea. BD Grappling Hook
The offset gear was really useful (especially the nuts) but not indispensable. A second set of regular nuts would suffice.

The Liberty Bell Group. South Early Winter Spire, North Early Winter Spire, Lexington Tower, Concord Tower (not visible), and Liberty Bell (l to r). Liberty Bell's east face is in the shade.