Friday, September 10, 2010

Colchuck Peak - The Elusive Northeast Buttress

With small children and a full-time job, it's hard for me to get out on personal climbing trips. Yes, I do get out into the field regularly to guide, but since we had children I have not had as many opportunities to get out and chase the types of routes that I love. I decided that it was important for me to try to do something new and interesting on a personal trip every summer. This year, that was going to be an ascent of the Northeast Buttress of Colchuck Peak.

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.

Jay leading a slabby crux on the third pitch of Heart of Gold

Jay passing the second bolt on Heart of Gold

Jay belaying the fourth pitch

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.

Colchuck Peak - Our route started just to the left of the discontinuous
snow colouir at toe of the buttress

Jay on the glacier below the peak

Wearing crampons on approach shoes isn't all that pleasant, but it is light!

Jay approaching the moat below the first pitch

Many parties have had a difficult time in the past getting over the moat to the toe of the buttress. Luckily a large snow block made the transition from snow to rock relatively simple. Had the block not been there it would have been much harder to do. As we crossed the snow block, one could look down into the darkness of the moat...and it wasn't clear that there was a bottom down there. For all that we knew, it could have just kept going and going!

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.

Jay leading the first pitch

The rock on the route was not sound. Of the twenty pitches that we climbed, there were only a handful that were quality. Instead, we found ourselves negotiating bad and loose rock throughout the entire climb.

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.

Jay leading up the fourth pitch of the route

Jay following the sixth pitch

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.

Jason high on the East Face of the Route

We found a few pitons on the route. Like the rock, they didn't look very sound.
Instead they were old and rusty.

Low-Angled Terrain on the East Face

Eventually I was required to launch out onto a blank face with limited protection. It was good that the rock on this pitch was sound. I built a belay and brought Jay up.

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.

The Central Pillar of Dragontail Peak is
the well-known route, Serpentine Arete (IV, 5.8)

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.

Jason and Jay on the Summit

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.

Click on the Topo to Enlarge

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

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Good job Jason!