Saturday, May 23, 2015

Slesse - Northeast Buttress Free solo in Winter

I know it has been months since I posted here, and while it seems that I am okay at climbing, I am terrible at consistently writing about my adventures. I know that my last post was about the same mountain, as if the only thing I climb is Slesse Mountain, but I promise that a story about my Patagonia trip is in the works. Writing about 'The Corkscrew' on Cerro Torre has proven to be a bit of a task, so I'm posting this first, to get some content up on this page. I've written a couples accounts of this particular climb already, but this is my favorite so far, so here it is:

I had always wanted to climb a big route on Slesse in the winter, and after learning to 'really' mixed climb in the Canadian Rockies during the Fall season following the triple, it became even more of a priority. I spent most of my winter in Patagonia, managing to complete some great climbs in the Torres, including a solo ascent of the beautiful Cerro Torre.

As I made the journey back north to Canada a bit of sleuthing had me convinced that Slesse must be in the 'condition of the century' for winter climbing. I tried to find a partner to attempt Navigator Wall, but with only one or two days of stable weather remaining it was too short of notice. Listening to an interview with Stevie Haston on the airplane, I heard him describe his free solo ascent of The Walker Spur in winter which got me psyched, so I began to formulate a new plan.

I had now climbed the Northeast Buttress of Slesse too many times in summer, but in winter I hoped that the climb would regain much of the mystique and formidable aura it had possessed in my younger years. The line had only seen one winter ascent, in 1986 by Jim Nelson and Kit Lewis, and that ascent had required aid on the crux pitches. The unknowns lying behind the difficulty of free soloing the route in winter only added to the feeling of a true adventure in the works, but it did seem a lofty goal, so I brought along an 80 meter 6mm Esprit cord and some pins and wires to bail with 'just in case'.

The Buttress head on from the air, taken the day of my solo ascent.


My sister, who lives in Chilliwack dropped me off at the start of Nesakwatch Creek FSR and I briskly walked to the Memorial Plaque beneath the mountain where I spent the night. I awoke at 4am the following morning, and after spending nearly an hour huddled in my sleeping bag I mustered the psyche to get moving.

At 5am, I left the memorial and approached directly through the basin beneath the mountain. The snow conditions were generally quite good, and a short WI2 step soon brought me to the slightly threatened slopes beneath the toe of the Buttress. I veered left here, joining the standard summer approach through the pocket glacier cirque. The upper section of the cirque still held a surprising number of deep crevasses, likely caused by avalanche debris from the East Face forming deep craters on impact.

I crossed over several bergschrunds on the right hand side of the cirque then climbed directly up to the bypass ramps leading to the Buttress crest. This section, normally a third class ledge walk in summer, was a surprisingly steep and exposed traverse on snow. As I neared the crest the angle and exposure kicked back and I quickly made my way upwards on good snow to the first 5.8 rock pitch.

This pitch was surprisingly easy in the conditions I found it in, the air was just warm enough that I could climb barehanded, as long as I stopped every two minutes to re warm my numb fingers. The pitch only required a few minutes of careful climbing and soon I was back on steep snow and neve, now accustomed to the exposure.

On the traverse into the Beckey Ramps I climbed slightly too high and had to make a very exposed down climb to reach the correct ramp on the north face. The ramps were coated with perfect ice and neve, making for fun, fast and easy climbing with a spectacular view down into the 'Heart of Darkness'. "This is rad", I said out loud.

The ramps led me back onto the crest of the Buttress and the second 5.8 rock pitch, which looked to be slightly more mixed than the pitch lower down. I removed my gloves again, and was able to climb about half the pitch with my hands before transitioning to proper mixed climbing. Finding a thin crack for my right tool, I danced over leftwards with my feet on small patches of ice until I could reach a thin veneer in which to place my left tool. The pitch felt around M5 in difficulty, and above the climbing slowly eased off until I reached to huge bivy ledge at mid height.

At the bivy ledge I took a break to eat some snacks and assess conditions on the upper headwall. The steepest pitch appeared to be fairly free of ice, but above, where the angle relented slightly, the rock was decorated by a patchwork of thin white ice. It looked interesting to say the least.

The snowslope leading to the headwall was relatively boring and does not need much description, nor does the WI3 runnel I took to bypass the first 5.8 pitch on the headwall. The 'rotten pillar' pitch was straightforward enough and soon I was on the crux, stemming in crampons around detached flakes in a corner. On top of one of these flakes I paused to remove my crampons and warm my hands before embarking on a slightly insecure bit of climbing on downwards sloping holds.

I traversed back right to a small roof which I passed on juggy finger locks, and now at the apex of the small overhang I was able to peer upwards to the iced up slabs I had observed from below. It was clear I was going to need my crampons again.

I placed a large nut and clipped myself to it for security, then gingerly stepped into my crampons one foot at a time. I mentally rehearsed my next sequence as it appeared from my airy stance, then removed the nut securing me to the wall and committed.

I switched my feet on a good hold and stepped up and right onto the slab. With my frontpoints set in small divots I balanced upwards, holding a small edge with my left hand for balance. I unclipped the ice tool from my right side and reached upwards for a small bit of ice pasted to the wall. Now at the edge of my comfort zone, I gently tapped the tool twice against the ice until the first two teeth sunk in. I tested the tool carefully, then took care not to make any sudden movements while I slowly searched out higher edges for my feet.

The edges I found sloped slightly downwards but my frontpoints found purchase enough to balance higher still. I carefully pulled out my left tool and placed it in thin but good ice above bringing me to a comfortable stance on a ledge. The crux now behind me, I allowed the mental RPM to decrease steadily until I was ready to continue.

The crux mixed slab, airy and slightly spicy. From the 1986 winter ascent, taken by Jim Nelson.


As I climbed excellent mixed terrain above I could really admire my wildly exposed position on this beautiful mountain. The whole buttress stretched out below me, black stone stained white with snow and ice. My tools found purchase on the well featured rock and the climbing gradually eased off pitch by pitch until I crested the final summit ridge and found myself standing in the sun. Eating a bar with the summit register in hand, I wrote, "Northeast Buttress - 2nd winter ascent. March 9 2015. Very exciting".

The crux pitch was likely delicate M6, perhaps M5+, but someone will have to do a second free winter ascent to verify. The west side of the mountain was surprisingly warm compared to the shady, iced up North face, but the ledges and gullies were still covered in snow and neve making for a quick and pleasant descent.

Descending the scree slopes on the Crossover Pass descent was nicely facilitated by the well settled snow and I was rewarded with a spectacular view of the route I had just climbed. After stumbling down the steep wooded trail below, I arrived at my bivouac site and ate a candy bar before packing up my equipment.

Walking the road back towards civilization I pondered my options. I had no ride back and considered walking the fifty kilometers to my sister's house through the night. I thought back to the ascent I had just made, it's often surreal when a long time dream, like climbing Slesse in winter, glides into the present, then into the past. I knew that my mind needed a break, I needed to relax and digest the adventures of the past months.

As I thought these things, an animal control vehicle pulled up to offer me a ride. The driver was a likable guy named Mark and we chatted, mostly about traveling, until he pulled up to a bus stop in Chilliwack and bode me farewell. A bus arrived a moment later and soon I was just a block from my sister's home. Her husband Robert saw me walking down the street through the window and came to greet me at the door. They welcomed me in happily, and at 6:30pm we all sat down to a delicious supper.

The buttress in profile, Dylan Johnson photo from the day before my solo.


2 comments:

  1. Gripping! Congrats on an incredibly bold ascent.

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  2. Very well written and informative article, thank you :-)

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