Monday, July 15, 2013

Slesse - A Solo Link-Up

Okay, so I haven't updated this page since Febuary. I apologize for that, but on the positive side the reason I have not been updating is because I have been extremely busy climbing, adventuring, training, sleeping and all the things that keep me permanently distracted from sitting in front of my laptop for any sustained amount of time. The exception is Facebook, you don't have to think to sit around on Facebook. Facebook is my most addictive rest day activity... anyways.

I have some serious updating to do, I should probably talk about my trip to the Valley in the Spring, but I'll do that later. I want to talk about a link up I did on a beautiful local peak by the name of Slesse Mountain.

Slesse is a very famous Canadian Mountain because in 1956 Trans-Canada Airlines flight 810 became disoriented in dense clouds and slammed into the eastern flank of the mountain, no one survived. It is also famous in the climbing world because its classic Northeast Buttress, first climbed by Fred Beckey, Steve Marts and Eric Bjornstad was included in Steck and Roper's 'Fifty Classic Climbs of North America'.

I first climbed the Buttress on my third attempt when I was 15 years old. My first two attempts were epic and frightening, and when I finally completed the route it was the biggest and most serious thing I had ever climbed, I was elated. A year later I was looking at the Crossover Pass descent route and noted that it would be very easy to traverse from the slopes near the end of the descent to the start of the North Rib, a route similar to but more sustained and difficult than the Buttress. I wondered 'what if'' a party was strong and fast enough to climb the Buttress, descend 'via crossover pass, and then climb the Rib in the same day. It seemed a bit ludicrous seeing as the Buttress alone took my partners and I two days to climb and I had been utterly exhausted by the end of it.

Fast forward 4 years. Now 20 years old and much more experienced as a rock climber I was beginning to really miss the alpine, the easily accessible rock around Squamish is a treat to climb, but I was missing that 'out there' feeling of adventure that goes hand in hand with committing routes in the mountains. Every year I would think about the 'Slesse Double Link' as I referred to it, but never truly considered attempting it. But then two weeks ago my friend Tony McLane and I left Squamish at 5am and drove the 3 hours to Slesse and climbed the North Rib together.

We brought one half rope and a few pieces of gear but ended up scrambling the entire route together unroped. We down climbed the summit tower instead of rappelling and navigated the Crossover Pass descent easily and were back at the car within 12 hours of leaving it. I was blown away by how much more capable I felt in the mountains compared to when I was a teenager. The three years of steady rock climbing in Squamish had made an enormous impact on my confidence and speed in the alpine. I felt ready to try the link up.

To prepare myself for my climb, and to ensure myself that I had the fitness required to do my link up safely, without exhaustion leading to poor decision making, I went for a training run. After getting off work early I jogged from my home to the 'Apron' of the Squamish Chief and proceeded to free solo 'Rock On', down climb Calculus Crack, jog to the base of Angels Crest, solo that as well, then run behind the Chief to Shannon Falls and solo Skywalker. After a swim in the beautiful pool below the upper tier of Shannon Falls I jogged back to the parking lot below the Apron and checked the time. It had been 5 hours since I left my home, I was pretty sure the Slesse mission would not be a problem. I was stoked!

I wanted to do the link up as soon as possible, while the approach to the Rib was still in good condition and before the pocket glacier approach to the Buttress deteriorated completely. But I had to work all week. I packed my bag Thursday night, and due to my lack of Vehicular Trasport Means I walked directly from work to a Greyhound Bus station and cruised to Vancouver. I always feel bad-ass taking my climbing pack on the Bus with my fancy technical ice tool strapped to the outside... the bright yellow helmet, not so much.

I hitchhiked my way into the Fraser Valley, and was pleased to get picked up despite the visible ice tool on my pack. Luckily I don't look like a serial killer, although most serial killers don't look like serial killers either according to my Mother who works in a Correctional Facility.

Now comes the embarrassing part of the story. Once I was in the Fraser Valley, my dear Mother drove out and picked me up and gave me a ride to the start of the gravel road leading to the trailhead. Sorry Mom, I'll get a car soon. I gave her a vague description of what I was going to attempt, not giving too many details that I could fill her in on once I was back down in one piece. I started hiking the road towards the trailhead at 11:30 PM.

This was the part of the adventure I was the most nervous about. Hiking alone in bear infested woods. I sang 'Hakuna Matata' on repeat to calm myself and to warn any wild beasts of my approach. If I could survive this approach the climbing would be of little concern.

I made it to the Memorial Plaque without being eaten and tried to sleep for a while. It was cold and I was still afraid of being eaten. I slept like a 5 year old child on Christmas Eve waiting for Santa to come down the chimney. At the very first sign of light I packed what I would bring for the link up into a bullet pack and started up towards to propeller cairn. I was psyched and moving fast, I stopped briefly at the cairn to eat a bar and sip some hydrogen monoxide, and then boogied my way across the slabs beneath the east glacier to avoid being crushed by falling blocks of ice. I quickly made it to the 'notch' used to access the pocket glacier and assessed conditions. It looked good! So I climbed down to the glacier and made a spectacular maneuver in which I demonstrated extreme inner thigh flexibility as I did the splits across a deep moat in order to gain access to the seasonal ice patch.

The first two thirds of the glacier consisted of straightforward walking, with the spectacular East Face brooding above, the sun just beginning to light the summit snowpatch. As I approached the upper third of the glacier I got my first view of the horrendous icefall guarding the approach ramps to the Buttress. At first glance I thought my mission was over, and I would have to go home. But I spotted an intricate, albeit extremely hazardous line that would bring me to the next tier of the glacier. Go time! I tried to move as quickly and precisely as possible, stemming wide above deep crevasses, navigating steep terrain beneath leaning towers of ice and climbing some short steep seracs only to find myself staring at an even larger and more intimidating schrund blocking access to the uppermost tier of the glacier. It looked completely impassable, a gap of at least 60ft, near vertical on both sides and spanning the length of the glacier. I could see that there had been some serac activity at the far left end however and traversed the entire glacier to have a look. I found that a serac had collapsed and was now spanning the gap, acting as a bridge, completely unsupported from below. I nervously climbed to the lip of the schrund and swung my tool into the death bridge, climbed onto it, and traversed the gap with nothing but air and the empty blackness of the schrund beneath my feet. I was off the bridge and more wide stemming through some small overhangs brought me onto the final section of glacier. I was pondering how I would navigate the large snow finger at the start of the access ramp when suddenly there was a loud rumbling and the right hand side of the finger collapsed into the icefall. There were several loud explosion-like sounds and the glacier began rumbling beneath my feet. I sprinted faster than I knew I was capable of and quickly squirmed through a tunnel between the 'finger' and the rock below like a panicking marmot. I arrived safe and sound at the start of the ramp panting for air. I knew the crux was over and I could now relax and enjoy the beautiful rock climbing ahead of me.

I climbed the easy ramps and past a gendarme to the start of the technical climbing on the route. I quickly changed to rock shoes and continued climbing the steep buttress. The climbing went by very quickly and I found myself sipping more H2O at the halfway ledge and switched back to approach shoes for the several pitches of 4th class leading to the summit tower. After changing shoes once again, I began cruising up the steep and exposed final pitches. Some low clouds had blown in and were now sweeping up the east face and billowing up around me, the sun was shining directly through the clouds, giving everything around me the appearance of being painted in bright gold. I could see my shadow in the golden clouds as I climbed the crux pitches. This was epic, a very special time to myself indeed. I soon found myself on the summit, I had no watch but I suspect the Buttress took me about 2 hours. Compared to when I was 15, it had felt incredibly easy. Being able to relax fully during the climb and just appreciate the movement and position made it much more enjoyable as well.

The down climb off the tower went smoothly and I followed the same route along the Crossover ridge that Tony and I had taken a week earlier. I shared part of my descent with a beautiful mountain goat, a wild animal that I am fairly certain will not try to devour me. As I navigated the long alpine ridge my thoughts were filled with what lay ahead. Did I have to energy to climb a longer and more difficult route safely? How would I feel descending for the second time? I should have been more focused on where I was at, I climbed a couple sections somewhat sloppily and even slipped once on a snowpatch. "Be careful Marc, pay attention", I thought to myself after self arresting. Soon enough I was glissading down moderate snow slopes and began to trend back towards to start of the North Rib. I stopped to fill my water bottle and have a snack. I slurped back a revolting 'power gel' and drank an 'Emergen-C' electrolyte beverage. The combination of citric acid and whatever goes into those gels nauseated me so badly I had to sit on a boulder doubled over for several minutes until the feeling passed. Then I jogged to the toe of the North Glacier and made a quick and easy crossing, jumping the moat to a small ledge at the start of the climbing.

I scrambled the first couple pitches to get away from any objective hazard from the ice towers around me, and then changed into rock shoes and began climbing the long aesthetic arete. The climbing on the Rib is much more sustained and generally less secure than that of the Buttress. While the climbing is quite moderate it involves friction dependent moves and somewhat involved routefinding. It would feel as if I had been climbing for a long while, then I would look up to see that the summit still looked infinitely far away, and the glacier below discouragingly close. I had to stop twice to take my shoes off and let my feet breathe. The position on the rib is just spectacular, being there alone is something to really cherish. I put my shoes back on and eventually found myself at the Notch between the main summit of Slesse and the smaller 'Fraser Tower'to the north. This would be an easy place to bail, as this notch is part of the regular descent route. But with only 6 pitches of 5.8 climbing between me and summit, lots of daylight left, and some energy to spare, the choice was clear. However my feet were very sore after 50 or so pitches in rock shoes so I soloed to the summit in my Tennies to spare my feet some pain.

                    A photo from Colin Haley's Blog, showing the North Rib, Summit looming above.

I relaxed on the summit for a good 15 minutes, to recover before making the long descent for a 2nd time. I recorded my link up in the summit register, ate some delicious trail mix and then started down. I was concerned that I may be fatigued and climb poorly so I payed extra attention the entire time. In fact I payed so much attention that I didn't slip once, make a single mis-step or error and found myself home free on moderate snow slopes in what felt like no time at all. I was so focused that my recollection of this descent feels 'etched' into my memory. The only other time I have experienced this kind of 'etched memory' was when I soloed 'The Milk Road' in Squamish, it is an interesting phenomenon, such focus leading to a unique memory imprint.

As I ran down the mellow slopes I realized I was essentially home free, with only straightforward hiking left to get home. I shouted, and hooted and hollered and screamed something along the lines of, 'I LOVE ALPINE CLIMBING'. I was psyched, really psyched. I looked up at the mountain and imagined the North Rib stacked on top of the Northeast Buttress, it seemed unfathomably huge, approximately 6,000ft of steep alpine rock. The feelings of success and elation filled me with energy and I ran the trail back to the memorial to pick up my gear before hiking back to the road, and stumbling back to the 'Riverside' campground where I had been dropped off the day before. Every so often I glanced back at the summit tower of Slesse, knowing I had stood there twice that day. I made it back to Chilliwack Lake Rd around 9pm, it was still fully light out, but I passed out on the forest floor and woke up cold at first light. I made myself a small fire to keep warm and hung out and stretched my sore muscles until mid day. Tired of waiting for my ride, I began walking the road towards Chilliwack. After about an hour of walking my Mom pulled up in her car and gave me a big hug, happy to see me alive and well and I filled her in on the details of my climb as we drove back to her home in Agassiz and had a wonderful family barbeque. Like a true man, I drank some sweet cherry cider coolers, and passed out.

I haven't written a report like this is years, but this adventure was something special. The realization of a goal I made 4 years ago, that once seemed absolutely impossible. The amusing part is, it didn't feel particularly hard or outrageous. Aside from a moment or two in the pocket glacier, it never felt 'extreme'. I think this is how these kind of missions should feel, relaxed, comfortable and in control. I realize now how much I really missed the mountains and how happy I am to be back, I am looking forward to getting a few more missions in this season... who knows, I may even write about them...

I hope you enjoyed reading about my experience :)


       The Northeast Buttress in Green, my descent to the start of the Rib in Blue, and the Rib in Red.


  1. Wonderful. It's good that you are young enough to handle the Gel/Emergen-C combo. The golden misty light and pretty much everything about this sounded so right for a guy that grew up almost under the peak. Thanks for the write-up.

    Get yourself more comfortable rock shoes.

    Andy Cairns

  2. pretty sweet! I got helicoptered into the top of the pocket glacier the end of Aug 1992. Spent a day1/2 climbing to the top of the buttress and a few hours of pain descending the steep trail out.(lost 3 toenails). I put my credit card to good use on route. We ran out of water but found a seep at the snow patch. The credit card placed flat on the rock gave me just enough lift to get a full water bottle. great report. I needed the rope and gear to get up that thing. Amazing that you soloed it twice. Cheers Scott Waeschle

  3. Great story! It had my palms sweating. What a great effort, I've never done the rib but the buttress is etched in my memory too from several ascents. Such a spectacular peak so close to home. It's so much easier when the pocket glacier slides out.

  4. Really enjoyed your write up! Sounds like an incredible day - good for you!

  5. great read, liked fun and low ego approach to doing some impressive fits of climbing.

  6. One question though: why did you opt to do it in early august rather than later? My partner and I did NE Buttress some time around Labor day and the pocket glacier was almost completely gone, exposing a pleasant hike up the slab all the way to the ramp.

    1. I wanted idea approach conditions for the Rib as well as the buttress. Later in the year the North Glacier deteriorates making access to the N Rib much more difficult, especially in the early afternoon as it would be in the case of this link up :)

  7. Really touching and well written! Congratulations and greetings from Italian Alps