Last Ascent

Escape Velocity

Snow Creek Wall from the Enchantments Trail Descending from the Mt. Baker trailhead, I turned my phone on with reluctance. Four days without signal guaranteed a cacophony of alerts once connectivity was restored. As the week’s clutter scrolled across the screen, one message stood out:

Clear Saturday! Snow Creek Wall?

We’d been hankering to climb Outer Space (III, 5.9) in Leavenworth for months, but the weather had been uncooperative. Gorgeous, sun-drenched weeks were repeatedly tainted by weekend downpours. Despite the fatigue from Baker, Peter’s notice of a weather window was too much to resist. Stopping at home just long enough to swap crampons for climbing shoes, I left for Leavenworth, rack in hand and visions of pristine alpine granite in mind.

Arriving past midnight, I scored a fitful night’s sleep at the Snow Creek Trailhead. At dawn, we set off for the Wall. An hour’s approach to the climbers’ trail, a spate of log crossings, and a few routefinding mishaps brought us to the base of our objective.

Peter taking the safe approach to stream crossing

We racked up and hung our packs before pulling out the topo, giddy with anticipation of the climb to come. For Peter, it was an opportunity to work the penultimate pitch once again; a fingerlock right off the anchor had given him trouble during past attempts. For me, a new trad climber, an area mega-classic featuring one of Washington’s longest hand cracks, some impressively exposed traverses, and great gear seemed the perfect way to spend a Saturday.

Inspecting the route, we agreed to avoid the 5.- scramble to Two Tree Ledge and try the start recommended in the Herrington guidebook. At 09:25, we began on Remorse. When we arrived at the car thirteen hours later, our hearts were full of it.

P1/5.0: Stoke High

Eager to warm up and a good deal more confident in his routefinding abilities, Peter volunteered to lead the first pitch. Practically a scramble, we spent a good deal of time working out which shrub marked the belay ledge. Attempts to gain one we had scoped out from the base required far harder climbing than expected of the pitch’s 5.- grade. Eventually, Peter relented and downclimbed several meters to build an anchor and bring me up. gain one we had scoped out from the base required far harder climbing than expected of the pitch’s 5.- grade. Eventually, Peter relented and downclimbed several meters to build an anchor and bring me up.

n.b. it’s possible to combine this pitch with the next if you’re not opposed to simulclimbing. Due to our difficulty determining the midway point we didn’t perform the P2 link up, but would recommended it.

P2/5.8: Pitch, Please

My first 5.8 trad lead, it was also where the realisation I’d developed a masochistic appreciation for slab climbing struck. Described in Cascades Rock as a thin, technical traverse, it meanders across the face of Snow Creek Wall towards a comfortable belay a dozen meters below Two Tree Ledge.

The crux involves a ~3m wide flake perched above a nearly featureless slab. Daunting at first, the stellar rock quality and fixed cams render it rather less intimidating. Thorough inspection revealed several positive divots, and the flake had ample room for hands. A careful step through saw me past and on to several meters of low fifth climbing before the belay.

Delighted by my onsight, I began bringing Peter across. As I belayed, I reached into my pack for water, noticing I’d only half a liter remaining. As we were making decent time, I thought little of it — we’d be back at the car by mid-afternoon at the latest.

P3/5.7: No Chim Chimney For Me

Sensing my elation, Peter graciously let me continue leading. The pitch offers the choice between a slabby face and a thin crack for pro, or a chimney that gradually transitions into offwidth. I needn’t clarify which I climbed.

A great pitch for a new leader, with ample opportunity for protection, it was a fun but otherwise unremarkable portion of our day.

P4/5.9: Dehydration Station

Having gained Two Tree Ledge and put Remorse behind us, we were on route and eager to start one of the climb’s best pitches. However, a party that began just after we’d completed P1 was at our heels, and we agreed to let them pass. That decision would haunt us, turning the day from a leisurely Grade III climb into a fifteen hour ordeal.

The sun beat upon us as we waited for them to finish the pitch, Outer Space’s crux. Though they were quick off the belay, a flurry of takes had soon followed. My supply of water was dwindling, and there was no shade to be found. We lingered on the ledge, our wait as interminable as the rope drag of a 5.6 Beckey traverse. By the time our climb resumed, fatigue and severe headache had set in. Not wanting to force a retreat and disappoint my partner, I pressed on without comment.

Peter ambled way up to the famed airy traverse and, with some swearing and smearing, made it through. From there, the ascent slowed. I distinctly recall checking my watch and, at times, wondering whether he’d wandered off route. His much belated (and long awaited) bellow of NICK, OFF BELAY! became the highlight of my day.

Pulling onto the face, the reality of my declining condition sank in. With a pounding head and thickening tongue, I was, for once, glad to be a top rope tough guy. What should have been a cruiser section felt as strenuous as redpointing a long-term project. I struggled upwards. Flopping onto the belay ledge, I saw Peter glance worriedly at his watch. It’s mid-afternoon and two pitches, an arduous fourth-class descent, and an hour’s walk separate us from the trailhead.

P5/5.7: I Don’t Know What To Do With My Hands

After exchanging gear and reflaking the rope to get Peter on top, we continue. Though I’d been eager to take this lead, a sustained, hand-sized splitter flanked by chicken-heads, dehydration had rendered me physically and mentally unfit for it.

With a decade of crack experience and quadruples of #1s and #2s, Peter floated up the face, and it was soon my turn to follow. Slightly delirious, I abandoned any semblance of technique and reverted to every boulderer’s favourite strategy: just add power. Fifteen minutes of strained lie-backs, sketch-y smears, and chicken-head-to-chicken-head dead-points had me back beside Peter, all without touching the pitch’s central feature.

He asks how I’d found the jam near the crux section, and is confounded by my description of a tech-y lay-back involving knee smears, a small left foot crystal, and prayer. His wry suggestion that I at least try a hand jam goes unacknowledged. Only a pitch and a half remained, and I’d a singular focus: removing my climbing shoes ASAP.

P6/5.9: Aid Climbing Not Always Aid?

Having lead everything since the third pitch, Peter had tired of free climbing and chose to aid the boulder-y start off the ledge. Though inwardly I groaned, knowing I’d have to clean a half dozen weighted pieces, I was grateful for anything that would hasten upwards progress and relief for my toes.

While I passed back the octuple of hand-sized cams, Peter set to fashioning makeshift étriers and plugging pro into the finger-crack at our right. After a few earnest bounce tests and a rote safety check, he gingerly steps into the aiders. Everything holds; there’s a faint sigh of relief. He begins to ascend, rhythmically shuffling gear upwards, clipping and unclipping, ‘til he’s just below the transition into a hand-sized crack that runs the remainder of the pitch.

With a loud bang, the line goes taut. The piece Peter’s aider was clipped to had pulled, dropping him several feet and slamming his head into the wall. He seems conscious and alert, and — after a tense moment — shouts that he’s able to continue. As he glances down, I see a stream of blood run across his brow. He transitions into the hand-crack and quickly disappears beyond a bulge; the black streak marking half rope passes through my belay plate, and the remainder of the the length promptly follows. The cry of off belay rains down. Had there been enough moisture left in my body to salivate, I would have. The end was near.

My turn to climb. I strip the anchor in record time and bolt towards the crack, jamming hands and feet with wild abandon. I take full advantage of my top rope invincibility and power past the fingerlock that had driven Peter to aid. Past here it feels like easy fifth, and as I come to the bulge, visions of flat ground and clear mountain springs flash through my mind. Pulling over the top, I halt. Peter is perched at a gear anchor beneath a giant flake. Above him, there’s thirty metres of slab. I pad towards the belay and clove in.

P7/5.-: I Was Told There’d Be No Runout

You’re up. I stare back blankly. What?

You gotta lead it. I can’t do a runout, not now.

It’s obvious to us both that the expanse above can’t be protected. The easiest line follows a series of chicken-heads before transitioning into low angle slab. Aside from a small flake barely three metres from the belay, there won’t be a placement until I reach the gravel-strewn top of Snow Creek Wall and sling a boulder.

OK, I concede. Though my heart’s not in it, I can hardly deny his request.

Cleaning had left me with most of the rack, and so I set off without exchanging gear to expedite our descent. Reaching the first flake, I sigh. There’s barely a hairsbreadth between it and the wall. I slot in a 00 — totally bomber — clip a double, and continue upwards. Occasionally, I reassure myself that everything will be fine by repeating the mantra Just don’t fall. I’d read this works for Alex Honnold; we must be wired differently.

Half-crawling, I reach the top of the wall, beeline for a tree a dozen meters away, build an anchor, and bring Peter up. There’s an immediate sense of relief as he reaches me, but we’re not home yet. It’s a quarter past seven, and we’ve only two hours until nightfall. We tend to Peter’s wound and take a few moments to collect ourselves before the descent.

What Goes Up…

Per usual, the descent beta was patronisingly vague. Scramble gullies at left. Roughly three-quarters of the way down, after a few scrapes and scree-induced slides, we gave up our cairn hunting and began traversing skiier’s left, perpendicular to the slope. We popped out of some brush 30’ above a clear trail leading back to our suspended bags. Peter chose to backtrack and find a less exposed route while I attempted to downclimb. A few tenuous fourth-class moves reunited me with our packs and stash of water; I drank an entire liter without pausing for air.

Several other parties were also packing up, and we were grateful for the company on the hike back out to the Enchantments trail. From there, we split up - they were significantly less tired and soon disappeared into the distance. We pulled out our headlamps and tramped back to the trailhead in silence, finally reaching it around quarter past ten. Sweaty, tired, and famished, we’re also victorious.

As we pulled away, I had only one question for Peter: Still game for Prusik in a day?