Cascades – South Early Winter Spire

Climbing an alpine route is a must otherwise you can’t state that you have been to the Pacific Northwest. Ted, a Bellingham based climber, whom I first met at Red Rocks in spring, invited me to climb some alpine routes near Washington Pass while I was taking rest days between two YBOYS courses.

Our objective on July 22 was to summit South Early Winter Spire. It was raining a little when we were driving toward the mountains; we crossed our fingers wishing to see the sun, whose radiant smile would dry out the rock faces, hopefully in record speed.

Multiple routes lead up to the summit of South Early Winter Spire. We planned to start with West Face and then switch to Southwest Rib because neither of us wanted to do the 5.10 Dolphin Chimney pitch. According to the guidebook, we needed to “scramble and climb 200ft” in order to start the climb with a prominent left-angling hand crack (5.8), of which the base could be identified by “small trees and two dead snags.” Somehow we hit a higher entry point and ended up in front of another crack. The crack was also left leaning but in addition to being just a crack, it resided in a left-facing corner. We found small trees but no dead snags. Not being able to see what was below us, we thought perhaps that was it. Ted led it; I followed it. That pitch just did not fit the profile.

Both of us studied the topo and realized that what we just climbed was a short 5.5, the 5.8 crack was right beneath it. Since we would not do the chimney pitch, from that point on, the rest of the climb was all low graded. Moving his pointing finger around on the topo, Ted said “we should rappel down and climb the hand crack, and do the 5.9 lie-back pitch as a variation of this 5.5;” “we have plenty of time.” I nodded not knowing that we, after all, would almost run out of time.

I led the 5.8 hand crack; the climb was not difficult but I felt it was awkward. Because the rock was still damp, my foot slipped a few inches; I exhaled some nervous noise. Down climbing to a better stance, I re-rigged myself, moving all the pros from one side of my harness to the other to eliminate the awkward feeling and climbed again. Moving slowly and cautiously, I saw the small trees again.

I anchored myself to a tree and put Ted on belay. In order to climb the 5.9 lie-back, he had to traverse out and up from the belay station; after that, I could spot him but couldn’t see him clearly because the view was blocked by leaves. It seemed that he was having a hard time; the noise he made was louder and louder, getting harder to identify as well. I braced myself expecting something might happen. He fell; he went up-side-down. I didn’t feel a thing; he didn’t fall much but he wasn’t too far from the ledge and he was up-side-down. I yelled, “Ted, are you alright?” Luckily he didn’t hit anything.

He soon put himself back together. We exchanged some conversations swiftly. That crack must be hard because I had never seen Ted like that. In Red Rocks, when we climbed together, he was always the one reminding me to keep breathing, encouraging me to look around to find footholds. Back then, everything was under control. He was gonna try again. He made some progress but he was exhausted. I had a theory that he was more mentally tired than physically tired. Before he fell, he thought the cam he last put in would not hold. During the fall, the image of hitting the ledge flew through his mind. Even though the piece in fact held, he was impacted. Finally, he put two cams in and set up an anchor about at the middle of that pitch. I lowered him back to me; during the whole process, he kept telling me that “Ting Ting, you can do this; you are fresh and you just have to top-rope to the two cams and start leading from there. The rest of the climb looks easy but I am too tired, and you are fresh.”

I was not sure whether I could do that, especially seeing Ted fall and all that. And Ted climbs harder than me, and I know Ted always thinks I can climb harder than I say I can. Still, I started to rig myself, “it doesn’t hurt to try,” I thought. I soon found out that not only did the crack require lie-backing, but it was overhanging, possibly the worst combination. My feet slipped off at one point, and the worse part was I never really felt my Stealth rubber sticked to the rock because the rock was moist. “This is 5.9?” I asked myself. I’ve top-roped 5.9 lie-back cracks in Yosemite, and this was way harder. Before I even reached the 2-cam anchor, my arms were tired. I yelled “take” once I reached the point, no doubt.

The rest of the climb looked easier, but what you see is not always what you get. I was ambitious enough to plan on free leading, but after all I got to respect mother nature and be realistic about my limits. I sighed, and started to aid my way up. I put in a piece, pulled on it, rested on it and put in another piece and kept repeating the process. Finally I felt a jug behind the rock to my upper right corner, and hopped onto a nice stance to set up a belay anchor.

Ted and I studied the topo again. To the right of the 5.9 lie-back crack, there was another variation which was also a crack; the difference was this newly discovered variation was rated 5.10+ or A1. We suspected that we in fact climbed the harder crack, and we kind of confirmed that with the information we gathered from the surroundings. Well, figuring out which line we climbed wasn’t our focus then; we had probably spent at least a couple hours on that pitch. The clock was ticking. We didn’t start early and now we didn’t even have time to regret our over-optimism.

The rest of the climb was uneventful. We got a 5.7+ twin 5-inch crack that required bear-hugging move and some super run-out easy slab climbing. On our way down, Ted and I didn’t talk much; our goal was to hit the approach trail before sunset and we made it. We made some dinner and slept in the car. The next day we did not climb Liberty Bell as planned and I appreciated that the rain which came afterwards helped to justify our decision.

Neither Ted nor I had predicted that July 22 would turn out to be a long day, but I gained precious experience and had much fun. Now, let me tell you “Yes I’ve been in Pacific Northwest.”

7 thoughts on “Cascades – South Early Winter Spire”

  1. hi,i am visiting here again now . i saw you make mention of the essay. I admire you。 good luck to you when you continues on the road.

  2. @primitives,
    i might go to China and climb for a couple weeks in Nov. still trying to figure out how to arrange it. My destination will be Yangshuo, if you have any suggestions for me, that’ll be great!!

    i heard that the climbers in Bellingham pretty much know each other. I bumped into two Bellingham climbers when I was climbing at Squamish and they happened to climb with Ted before too. Climbing community in Bellingham is a small and warm world. Maybe Ted knows your uncle too.

  3. Thanks for the TR. I came across this page when doing research on SW buttress route. We are doing it this weekend. 3 out of 4 of us are Chinese 🙂

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