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About Us > Adventures > S. Early Winters Spire

S. Early Winters Spire - S. Arete 8/24/03

Our second rock climb of the weekend (my fourth up SEWS via the S.Arete) began when our three Basic students for the day pulled up next to our truck at the Blue Lake Trailhead at 5:30 a.m. Ken, Doug and I had climbed Liberty Bell the day before and car camped at the BLTH after eating dinner in Winthrop; the students had stayed at Clark’s Cabins in Marblemount. We quickly donned our climbing garb, gulped down some breakfast, and were the first ones on the trail by 6 a.m. There were six cars in the lot when we left, but we anticipated the lot would be full before the end of the late summer day.

Without snow, the approach trail heads due east, parallel to the N. Cascades Highway, until it does an about face due north of the spires. The dry, dusty, but cushioned trail then heads south, until you reach the slabs at the western base of the Spires. Once you start heading up the steeper climber’s trail, and you’re almost past the Liberty Bell gully, a small cairn marks the distinct fork; the left trail leads up to Liberty Bell and Concord; we took the right branch in a more southeasterly direction to gain the ridge at the base of the climb, roughly 1:30-2 hours from the car. In snow, the direct approach cross-country or from the Hairpin Turn can be somewhat faster if you know the terrain (and time can certainly be made up on the descent, if you can glissade in snow.) About 20 minutes below the notch, we encountered two gents in a tent. Five nimble mountain goats chasing each other on the rocks didn’t seem to mind when one of the gents stepped into their circle for a picture.

By 8 a.m. we were at the base of the S. Arete and getting into harnesses. Ken Hahn headed up on lead at 8:45 in rock shoes, with Miguel Esteban belaying. The crux of the climb is actually right off the deck on the first pitch. The first couple moves are most easily done on the blocky, cracked rock to the right of the larger foot crack that heads up and right, but key is to get a cam in about 5 feet below the finger tip traverse to protect the step across. Get your right foot up fairly high (right near the cam) in the crack and look for sloping ledges on the face that can provide a small left foothold. Secure a few fingers of your right hand into the traverse crack (or wedge a small nut in there if your fingers are too big) and reach far left with your other hand, then with flexible hips, you can get your left foot onto a better hold far left and then lunge across. I was pleased that I was able to lead it this time in mountaineering boots without becoming a beached whale or touching a knee to the rock. We actually suggested to the Basics who were having difficulty that they attach a prusik to their rope and use it as a hand hold to make it past that one move (it’s on the tougher side without rock shoes, especially for the new climber.) All told, on the first pitch I used a cam, a small stopper, and the rap anchor as a third piece directional to cut down on rope drag.

Michelle and I were the second team, Doug and Brady Johnson third. As soon as I reached the belay tree for the first pitch, I had Michelle come up to join me. She was breathing hard and looking a little stressed out; when she admitted she was afraid of heights and wasn’t sure she wanted to continue, I asked how she felt about chimneys. She thought a moment, sat down, had some water, and said she thought she could at least try the chimney since they tend to be a bit less exposed. Relieved, I suggested she take some deep breaths, get a bite to eat, and belay me on up the next pitch, reminding her at the same time that Doug would be right up behind her.

The second pitch is a fun little chimney that can be done in one long pitch or two shorter pitches (we did it in 2 with 50m ropes). There is a chockstone that has a piece hanging down from it that nearly everyone I know uses; other than that, I placed one cam and a stopper, and girth hitched through the “permanent piece.” Key to this pitch is having the right shoulder in to the rock so you can stem or inch-worm up the rock with butt or back or foot against the far wall – better hand holds – or you can face in or out and stem upward. Doug and I take a fanny pack for any routes with chimneys so we can easily clip the fanny pack to a biner on our hip to get our backs snug against the wall. Once Michelle topped out, she seemed to have a little more color to her face, and I asked if the chimney had been a little easier for her. Fortunately, she seemed inclined to continue after a short rest, so we finished the chimney pitch (short third; stay left, it’s wider, with fewer handholds, but seems a little easier to climb than the right crack) and then scrambled in coils (with running belays) along the dusty ledge left of the ridge. From here there are two options: stay left, climbing up slightly more difficult terrain (a belay is good here) or turn right before the dusty ledge and go up an open book (my choice). Then it’s not far before you round a corner and come across the infamous Whaleback.

Someone has added a bolt on the opposite side of the whaleback, though I remember doing the finger traverse for the first time in 1999 without the bolt being there. Key is to keep heels down and feet solidly on several of the small features on the rock, and maneuver hands along the top of the granite hump until you reach a 3” ledge for your boots, then turn and walk down the other side. I showed Michelle precisely what I wanted her to do, and she agreed to try it. Once she squelched her fear and joined me, panting, on the other side, Miguel (at the summit) whooped down that she was almost there. After a few more deep breaths and another sip from her camelback, we continued in coils into the scramble gully and up to the summit. Once we joined Ken and Miguel at the summit, it was merely minutes until Brady and Doug started across the whaleback. It was a beautiful day, nary a cloud, just a slight breeze, and by that point we’d had the route entirely to ourselves.

The third team touched the summit rock a full two hours ahead of our predetermined 2:30 turn around time, and we headed back down with a single rope rappel from the summit into the gully, up the narrow ledge with a handline for anyone who wanted it, and then across the whaleback with a fixed line for security for the students. We set up another single rope rappel just on the other side of the whaleback, a double (50m) rope rappel left of the 2nd pitch gully, and a final single rope rappel to take us back to our packs. On our way down the climbing route, we encountered a few parties of 2 and a party of 4 who had climbed the SW Rib and were scrambling down the S. Arete. By 3 p.m. we were reclaiming our gear, fortunately not nibbled by goats, and we reached the cars by about 4:30, in plenty of time to stop at Clark’s Cabins for dinner and milkshakes, a fine end to a fine climbing weekend in the North Cascades.

Mountain goats on the approach to S. Early Winter Spire.

Approaching the ridge, where we'd harness up.

Michelle and Miguel at the base; does this knot look right?

Doug, Brady and Ken at the ridge preparing to climb.

Ken leads the first pitch.

Ken stems too high.

Miguel follows Ken up the crack on the first pitch.

Michelle in belay position on the other side of the whaleback.

Ken and Miguel on the summit.

Doug belays Brady across the Whaleback

Ken, Miguel and Michelle at the summit.

Maybe it's time for a brief summit nap...

Brady and Doug descend into the gully

Doug coaches Brady along the rappel rope as a hand line in case he needs assistance.

Doug on the summit block.

Our mentor students: mountain-man Miguel, relieved Michelle, and Biker Brady.

Miguel rappels into the gully

Brady finishes his time on the Whaleback.


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