For the second year in a row, my fourth of July was spent miles and miles from the nearest fireworks in an alpine wonderland. This year brought my first real trip to the North Cascades for climbing. The North Cascades is an alpine playground… more peaks than you can count, beautiful and wild views, and so many traditional routes it takes a series of guidebooks to plan a weekend.
We got in late on Saturday, so spent the first afternoon trying to climb in a way-too-hot Mazama. After calling it a day, we logisticized and packed and pre-fed and pre-hydrated for a long day on Sunday at Washington Pass. I took down approach and descent information, and drew a topo of the routes we were considering, to tuck into my pocket just in case we had routefinding issues the next day.
GR and I were out with friends Tiffany and Randy. Tiffany and Randy (pictured above on the true summit of the Beckey Route) are “real” climbers… they climb mountains, not just rocks. The four of us planned to start on the Beckey Route (II, 5.6) on Liberty Bell’s Southwest Face and then had ideas for other routes we’d do if we had time. GR’s first ever copy of Climbing Magazine, back when he was an aspiring climber rather than the Gear Rescuer he is now, featured Washington Pass, and alpine routes there are one of his inspirations for becoming a climber. This weekend was our first opportunity to actually get into the area and get a taste of some of Washington’s most classic alpine climbing.
We did a semi-alpine start (alarm set for 5am) anticipating another very hot day. We made the Blue Lake trailhead with an almost empty parking lot, which was a huge surprise for a holiday weekend. We did our final packing and adjusting, and Randy (the driver) let us know where he’d put the keys. Offhand, I told my partners that just in case, I had an emergency inhaler in my pack, but we won’t need it. As we started up the approach (with roughly 1,500 feet of elevation gain over 1.5 or 2 miles) we moved quickly, with the long-legged boys in front. At just under five feet tall, Tiffany is an absolute champ, and kept up with the guys like a superstar. I fell behind a bit, and caught up with everyone at a rest above the switchbacks in the boulder-strewn, snow-covered-in-parts climbers trail, then had a compelling need to drop pack. My eyes started to well up for no reason, and I recognized the familiar physiological signs and realized… I’m about to have an asthma attack.
I haven’t had an asthma attack in years… I can’t remember having one in the 4.5 years I’ve been climbing. I have really only carried an inhaler for climbing partners — twice, I’ve had asthmatic climbing partners leave theirs behind and need one, and so have gotten in the habit of carrying one just in case.
Because I haven’t had an attack in so long, I noticed the signs too late to head it off — by the time I realized what was going on, I couldn’t breathe. I tried to stay calm, and Tiffany snapped to action to help me get my pack open and fish out the ditty bag. I shook and pumped the not-touched-in-a-year inhaler, hoping it would do the trick, and took a puff. More shaking, more pumping, and another puff. No luck… and no breathing. More shaking, more pumping, and I could smell the familiar, chemical smell of the albuterol finally coming out. I took a couple of puffs and tried a deep breath and could feel my chest loosen and the air flow. My partners, being eaten alive by mosquitoes, waited patiently and calmly as I calmed down and enjoyed a regular flow of oxygen again, asking questions about asthma, and about what they should know and do if it happens again. During our little mosquito-infested rest, Randy asked what happens if I don’t have an inhaler and I have an attack. We agreed I’d just keep my inhaler handy… (yay for pants with huge pockets) for the rest of the trip, so that we wouldn’t have to find out. After a good rest, and after I’d caught my breath, we headed on up. After awhile, GR took the rope off me, which lightened my load significantly, and we kept up, up, up the approach.
The scramble up to the notch is loose and rocky, and we had parties above us knocking loose rocks and unfortunately despite taking care we did our share of rock knocking too.
Climbers call “ROCK!!!” when they knock loose even a tiny pebble… the mountain goats aren’t as considerate, though — they “goat solo” the approach with amazing grace and speed, and tremendous unannounced rockfall. Just reaching the “notch” between Liberty Bell and Concord Tower felt like an accomplishment, even though I had to offload the rope to do it.
Here’s a happy Tiffany, just after arriving at the notch. Our time was about 10am, at that point… not too bad, given the relative drama of the approach.
There was a party of three getting ready to start up the Beckey Route in front of us, which gave us a chance to pack our daypacks, snack a bit, hydrate and get geared up for the route. GR and I’d planned to swing leads on the route and then try to get in a second peak on Concord Tower — but I was completely wiped from the approach, and GR was up for leading the whole Beckey Route, so that was what we focused on. He made great time up the first pitch and belayed me up; GR lead the second pitch up a 5.7-ish hand crack variation, and I followed, cleaned the gear low in the handcrack, then climbing a narrow chimney with as much grace as possible wearing a summit pack. Randy said that we’d missed the 5.5 chimney the main route follows, but I didn’t see any other chimneys — so who knows. Regardless, we had fun.
Here are some views from the first and second belays:
And, of GR on the third pitch of the route.
The views got better and better as we went up, and after GR lead and brought me up the third pitch, we took in the views from the false summit there at the top of the Beckey Route from a nice, comfortable shoulder where we could hang out unroped. GR’s lead was in fine style — his gear was excellently placed, and he decided not to clip any fixed pro. We had a nice long break to take in the views and snack while we waited for Randy and Tiffany.
Here’s a shot from the “false summit” at the top of the Beckey Route, looking out at another climbing party on Concord Tower, with Lexington Tower, and North and South Early Winter Spires in the background:
And, the view through the trees at the shoulder / bivy site at the top of the Beckey Route:
Here’s my new desktop background view of Blue Lake, shot by GR from a scramble up above the top of the Beckey Route:
Randy and Tiffany had a bit of drama of their own on the route, thanks to their well-stocked summit pack. They wound up having to leave the pack on the belay ledge below the chimney pitch, planning on a pack retrieval at the end of the day.
When they reached the false summit where we were waiting, they wanted to go up to the full summit. The full summit is an unroped scramble, requiring a reported “5.7 bouldering move” on a slab, unprotected, to gain a ledge from which another fifth class unprotected scramble leads to the summit slabs. Don and Randy bouldered up the slab, then belayed Tiffany and I up.
From the ledge, Randy hip-belayed Tiffany up to the summit, but without communication (wind and distance impaired it) and without my rock shoes, I felt like I’d pushed my limits enough for the day. I wasn’t worried about getting up, but I was concerned about getting down. I didn’t know the quality of Randy’s stance and we couldn’t communicate in order to establish that he was solid, and seriously — I’d already had enough adrenaline for one day. My risk tolerance overwhelmingly asserted its desire for the relative safety of the ledge to the unknowns of the summit, and I opted for safety.
When my friends came back down, raving about the views, it was hard — of course, I’d have liked to have been up there with them — but, next time I know to at least have sticky rubber for the summit, and, have a better idea of what I’m in for to reach it. We rapped down the slab to reach the shoulder of the false summit, then packed up and headed for the rappel stations back down to the notch. We had two ropes but opted for single rope rappels, given the reputation of the route as being a rope-eater, and our raps went pretty smoothly, with one stuck rope but GR was able to clear it on rap, without further incident.
By the time we got down to the notch, it was already late in the day (approximately 6pm). Randy and Tiffany retrieved their stashed pack by re-leading the first pitch and rapping off a tree at the top, then faced a stuck rope of their own. After trying various rope-unsticking tricks, they were able to two-man the rope to unstick it, and with much effort, got their rope down.
Our hopes of a second route would have to wait for our next trip up. I knew, based on the difficulty of the scramble up, that the descent was going to be the last crux of the day, so we headed down following descent beta from a group of guides who were out for the day on Concord Tower. The recommended descent path from the notch is to hug the base of Concord Tower until you see the climber’s trail on your right. The base along Concord Tower was much better than the loose scramble up the middle of the gully, but when we went right to meet what we thought was the climber’s trail, we wound up off of the trail we’d come up on. We kept meeting, then somehow, losing, our ascent trail. Randy and Tiffany are comfortable on such loose terrain from their mountaineering experiences; GR’s a skier, so he moves easily over such loose terrain.
I, on the other hand, am not a mountain goat. Again, my less-than-suited-for-the-task shoes were a liability. I had two scary slips on the way down … Tiffany kept me company even though I was moving slowly, and both Randy and Tiffany tried to coach me on techniques for moving more safely over the terrain. Even now — in July — there are snow crossings and areas where you have to watch for postholes around boulders. While crampons and an ice axe may be overkill, I do think the next time I’ll be prepared with more suitable approach shoes and snow cups on my poles. The descent was quite stressful for me, though my climbing partners seemed to be having fun, and when we got below the loose soil and talus, and snow, and back onto nice groomed gentle switchbacks, I was one incredibly happy camper. The light got dimmer and dimmer, to nearly dark by the time we reached the car, but the end of the hike was fun and lighthearted despite the man-eating mosquitoes who seemed completely undeterred by our repellents and layers of clothing.
We reached our camp at Early Winter campground between Washington Pass and Mazama, and quickly made dinner, which we ate while nearly asleep at the picnic table. We all crashed hard that night, and slept in late the next morning. The plan was a day trip to Index for Sunday, but that will be a separate blog post.
Logistics and Postscripts
Despite only getting in one route, we definitely ticked a classic, and had an unbeatable learning experience that resulted in four safe and sound aspiring alpinists at the end of the day. Even though I have a very healthy respect for approaches and descents, I underestimated the seriousness of this one — I’ll aim to be better prepared footwear-wise, and, will scout the descent path in way more detail on my way up the approach, to try to avoid the trail-finding hassles we had on our way down. I still have a terrible habit of just following the leader on the descent, which works if we’re all equally matched in terms of hiking skill — but when I’m the weak link, I need to be able to find a weak-link way down. The climbing on the Beckey Route is fun; the approach and descent once you leave the Blue Lake trail are definitely the crux.
The routes were crowded, despite the long approaches and objective hazards associated with alpine climbing. An early start means you have more options if you move fast, and, more daylight if you move slower than expected.
Helmets are not optional. Sunscreen and sun cover is also a must; even with high SPF on, my freckles are now in full glory and my arms and face got a lot of sun.
Also, I guess for me, carrying an emergency inhaler is now also not optional — much to my surprise. I thought I’d “kicked” asthma through weight loss, improved cardiovascular fitness and conditioning; but apparently not. Tha
t was a heck of a scare, actually — it left me feeling a bit drained of energy and bold! But, now I know to be prepared, always, just in case.
Finally, if anyone has tips for mosquito repelling… please share ’em. The spray I typically use worked for a few minutes, but then the bugs just kept biting. We had all forms of bug spray, from lemon eucalyptus to chemical, and I came home covered in mosquito bites. I’m contemplating some Ex Officio Buzz Off mosquito repellent clothing but am curious to hear tips from other climbers. I used to have success with a solid dose of garlic and B-vitamins, but didn’t take those precautions this trip!
How was your fourth? Please tell me all about it in the comments!
For more information:
- SummitPost page on The Beckey Route
- RockClimbing.com page on The Beckey Route
- Washington Pass chapter of Rock Climbing Washington, by Jeff Smoot (with a new edition available now!)
- Liberty Bell Mountain (from Climbing Washington’s Mountains by Jeff Smoot)
- Cascade Alpine Guide: Rainy Pass to Frasier River, by Fred W. Beckey
- Weekend Rock: Washington, by David Whitelaw.
The guidebooks we used for our planning are all available from Amazon.com.
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