Former AAI guide Jay Hack and I have been climbing with one another for over a decade. Jay and I both started guiding together in the summer of 2000. Since then, we have done many of our most memorable climbs together, including my big personal trip from last year on the Northeast Buttress of Mount Slesse.
Instead of planning for the standard two day ascent of the route, we decided that it might be better to go cragging in Leavenworth and to go out to dinner the day before our ascent. This laziness before hand gave us the opportunity to enjoy a pleasant four pitch route and a nice dinner before turning in early.
The route that we selected to warm up on was a classic Leavenworth line called Heart of Gold (II, 5.10a). This slabby route gave us just what we needed, a little spice, some interesting slab climbing, and some old bolts, all of which helped us to get our heads into the game for the climb to come.
We started the hike by headlamp at 1:30 in the morning. I'm not sure if either of us said it, but we both knew that it would be a very very looonnng time before we got to see the car again. By 6:00am we were strapping crampons onto our approach shoes and were working our way up the glacier to the base of the route.
It was cold and there was a crispness in the air as we pulled on our rock shoes and started to climb. The Cascades tend to see a bit of a shift in early September. Fall comes early to the mountains and to the mountain air. As we began working our way up, we found it difficult to keep our hands and feet warm. The wind had a bite to it all day.
When I mentioned that I was going to try to do the Northeast Buttress of Colchuck, one experienced Cascadian alpinist told me, "that is the most bailed off of mountain in the range!" What he meant was that many climbers don't have much success on the route. Indeed, when we were up there, core-shot ropes, nests of slings and old pitons decorated that mountain from the bottom to the top, a testament to the number of people who have retreated. A combination of bad rock and tricky routefinding drew on all of our alpine skills. It doesn't surprise me that so many parties bail well below the top.
Approximately half-way up the mountain, the route took a radical turn away from the buttress and made it's way onto the East Face for a number of lower angled pitches. We were supposed to follow fourth and low-fifth class pitches until we found a left-facing dihedral from which we could reattain the buttress.
We never found the dihedral.
Instead they were old and rusty.
Low-Angled Terrain on the East Face
The next pitch back to the buttress was absolutely stellar. I lead out, following a perfect crack system on sound rock. And although the route was windy and loose below, this phenomenal pitch made up for it...mostly.
We reached the summit of the mountain at 5:30pm. It had been a very long day of climbing with a few genuinely frightening pitches. We quickly transitioned from climbing mode to mountaineering mode and made our way down to the Colchuck Glacier. It would be another five hours until we were at the car, making it a twenty-one hour day.
To see a topo of the route which shows our line as well as the Beckey variation (which we did not take), please click on the following photo.
I'm not sure that I would strongly recommend the Northeast Buttress of Colchuck to anybody. It was a bit on the loose side and somewhat "zig-zaggy." But it was a really grand adventure with a good friend...
--Jason D. Martin