Yesterday I had one of those “coming full circle” moments in my climbing life. I first climbed Liberty Bell when I was 17 via Thin Red Line, and Liberty crack when I was 18, which was about 12 years ago. Both of those ascents were monumental for me at the time. On my long ago ascent of TRL I had my first real wall bivi experience and it was one to remember. My partner and I shared a single Fish portaledge and pretty much gumbied our way up the route aiding almost every possible inch of the route. On Liberty Crack we had planned on a one day ascent but of course didn’t send in a day. We pulled an all nighter making it back to the car by noon the next day. For me times have really changed since those teenage ascents. I’ve been fortunate enough to spend a good majority of the last 10 years climbing, living and working in Yosemite. I’ve learnt a few things down there in those years. A couple of which are how to free climb and how to climb really big routes.
The only problem with spending all that time in Yosemite is that I haven’t really been able to climb in the Cascades much. Luckily for me I quit my job in Yosemite two years ago now which has allowed me to make it to some destinations other than the Valley during the summer months. Last year I managed to spend almost a month in Washington and loved it the whole time. So far this year I have only racked up a total of 5 climbing days here in the state. I’ve tried to make the most of the them though, a day at Si, Index, Der Sportsman on Prussik Peak, and two days up at Washington Pass.
I barely squeaked the two days in at the pass. It was actually a last minute decision to go up there on Sunday night. Kate and I were driving back from climbing up in the Powell River area of BC and had finished the route a little quicker than expected which left us with a little free time.
We had driven well into the night on Sunday night so there wasn’t going to be any serious pre-dawn starts for us on Monday. We slept in Newhalem (the last place with phone service) and had a leisurely morning. Without a guide book we were pretty limited in route selections, I tried to do some topo hunting on my Iphone but didn’t get to far. I was able to get some beta for the Independence route, from Jen’s Holsten blog and thought that would be a good option for us the next day. By the time we got out of Newhalem it was close to 11:00 which didn’t leave much time for anything but cragging. We decided on low commitment cragging on the first few pitches of Liberty Crack
So before we knew it Kate was leading the 5.11 first pitch of Liberty Crack. I then took over and free climbed and yarded on a few pieces up and over the Lithuanian Lip. grabbing a few holds and ticking a few key foot holds. I setup a good high piece and lowered back down to really try and climb it. The first part of the roof seemed a little cryptic at first even though there are pretty good locks going out it. I knew the real business would be turning the roof. It turned out to be a good style of climbing for me, really scrunched up climbing that involves a lot of core tension and a couple thumbs up pinky locks. After about 10 or so attempts i was able to pull over the roof and get established in a really good lock with some ok feet right above the lip. I could get a pretty good shake out here. I attempted to continue leading on from my high piece at the lip, but the tricky thin locks and funky gear shut me down pretty quickly. I pulled on a few pieces and gained a small ledge with a bolt to lower down on. The funky locks below turned out to be not so bad on top rope. Good locks a few feet apart. Really straightforward climbing. Pull the lock to my waist reach up and grab the next one. Repeat 3 times to the ledge with a bolt.
I continued up yarding on the bolts to the anchor on top of pitch 2. This section had me a little baffled. I had seen a topo mentioning the free variation goes out right of these bolts and the original ladder was never freed. The variation out right only has only one bolt on it though, which would be a problem for me, as I have no interest in climbing mid 5.12 slab 15+ft above a bolt. I brought Kate up to the belay and had her lower me back down for closer inspection. Feeling the blank wall as I lowered down pass the original bolts assured me that I wouldn’t be going that way. I swung over right and started tick-tacking my way up micro edges. I quickly came zinging off and swinging out of control to my left. This pitch was proving hard to even toprope. I gave the pitch a handfull of burns and after much cursing I declared it to involved for the short amount of available time I had.
I eyed the next pitch which started with a couple pins and then a bolt to some fixed heads. I had climbed the upper portion of this pitch while doing Freedom or Death awhile back and remembered it not being to hard. It would have to wait. We rapped and headed down the pass to the east to go have a BBQ at a friends place. Much eating and partying ensued which wasn’t going to help us get out of bed tomorrow.
The alarm still managed to go off at 4:15 regardless of the jedi-mind trick I tried on it. Kate stayed in bed while I motored the van up to the pass. By 6:30 we had taken care of all our morning rituals and were about ready to head out. Kate was making the final touches on a hand written topo for the Independence route when for some reason I thought it would be a good idea to go and try Liberty Crack again. I wasn’t really sure what I was thinking at this point, or maybe I was still asleep. Jens had made the Independence Route sound kinda scary, hard and a little more than I could muster right now. Kate was an easy convert to the Liberty Crack idea. Clean, solid and classic are hard to beat.
Kate was leading up the first 5.11 pitch by 8:00am. Four hours from the alarm to the first pitch wasn’t an awful start but it wasn’t very promising either. She made quick work of the funky pitch. I thought to myself this will be perfect I will be leading the hardest pitches just as it starts to getting really really hot out. I had already come to terms with an A0 ascent so I didn’t let the heat get to me. I quickly free climbed up to the lip and promptly pulled on a few pieces up and over the lip again. I continued on to the bolt by the little stance and had Kate lower me from there. I made sure all of the gear was where I wanted as I went by. A pinkpoint attempt would have to do right now.
Back at the lower belay I pulled the rope, gave myself a little inward motivational talk, laced my shoes a little tighter and started upwards. For some reason I had the heebee jeebess inside me, which is something I usually only get when I’ve been trying really hard to redpoint a pitch. At this point my attachment to sending this pitch wasn’t that high so I was surprised to feel this way.
As I reached the base of the roof a strong breeze kicked up cooling the stale morning heat. I stuck the entry sequence better than I had previously and was quickly and blindly pinky locking over the roof. A few primal screams, a heal hook and deadpoint to the good lock brought me over the roof. I shook out from the good lock in a state of amazement wondering how the hell I just pulled that off. Kate says I have a knack for pulling shit out of my ass, this may have been one of those times. I finished up the next short tricky sections with less thrutching than expected. I chilled out on the stance for a bit trying to decide what to do. I ended up yarding past the original bolts to get to the anchor on top of pitch 2. Kate quickly followed with some good french free technique.
I had to figure out what to do about the steep slab section below. There was no way I was going to lead that thing and I really doubted that Brooke Sandahl (who did the FFA) had lead that pitch with the single bolt. He must of done some sort of monkey trick to protect it. I had heard stories of him fixing a line from some anchor and using that for pro but I had always figured that was for the section past the Lithuanian Lip. I have no idea what he did but I don’t know of many people that would lead that pitch in it’s current state. If it were me doing the FFA I would of had a total of 4 bolts protecting the slab. I need to email Brooke and find out more details.
I decided I would have to settle for the toprope for the time being if I could even pull that off. After an hour or so of toiling on the pitch yesterday I still had a couple moves I couldn’t do and a move I only pulled off once. As I lowered down with my nose 6 inches away from the rock inspecting every fleck, chip or bump for potential I realized this was going to be really hard. I worked the upper moves on the pitch for almost an hour before I could figure out the 10 foot traverse back to the anchor. This was the move I couldn’t do yesterday so I figured I had it in the bag after lapping the move 3 times in a row.
After a short rest I lowered down to give the whole pitch a burn. To my dismay I fell off the lower portion of the slab over and over and over again. I had done this part somewhat casually yesterday but that was in the shade. It was now approaching noon and with high’s in the 80’s things weren’t feeling very sticky. I can’t even count how many times it took me to figure out the moves on the lower bit. Again after 3 straight laps I figured I had it wired. Up at the belay I rested for awhile pondering my chances of sending. I wouldn’t of put 5 bucks on the table saying I’d send next go.
But luckily i beat my own odds on my next attempt. It had all the makings of good redpoint (though i was only on TR) , blown sequences, deadpoints to crappy holds, fighting back the urge of the Elvis leg and just barely sketching it out to the belay. I was glad to have that one over. Even though it wasn’t in the best style I’ll take it for what its worth given the lack of info and time I could put into it. The pitch could really use some more bolts if anyone besides the likes of Tommy or Honold are going to go up there and truly redpoint it.
Onwards and upwards we went. Pitch 3 went down with out nearly as much blood, sweat and cursing. If there had been anymore required of me on the pitch I am not sure I would of sent though. At the top of the pitch it started to sink in that I had actually just free climbed my way up here (with a short top-rope section but again I’ll take what i can get right now).
We were finally able to kick it into to gear and make some good time up the remainder of the route. It had taken close to 5 hours to do the first 3 pitches and then only 3 hours to do the remaining 8 pitches. It felt nice to just be cruising up there without anymore hard pitches left. The summit arrived quickly as did the descent back to the Van. I wish I could say the same for the drive back to my parents place in Snohomish…. We found ourselves stumbling into bed at 11:00pm totally exhausted but very content.
We had done close to 50 pitches in the last week, driven 900 miles, taken 6 ferry boat rides, taken a short side trip to Gulf Islands off the coast of Vancouver Island and just did one hell of climb.
I laid awake for at least an hour rehashing the unlikely outcome of the day and how it took 12 years to get here.