South Early Winter Spire, South Arete – 8/31/2019

I’ve wanted to climb at Washington Pass since I first learned alpine climbing was a thing. This weekend I finally got to do it! Melissa and I climbed the South Arete of South Early Winter Spire. The South Arete is the easiest route of the Early Winters Spires. It’s varied terrain, with a lot of 3rd and 4th class mixed in with a little fun 5th class terrain. The views were stunning, the company good, and the experience mind blowing.

Melissa and I drove out to Washington Pass on Friday afternoon. I was under the delusion that we’d gotten out early enough to find a camp site at one of the established campgrounds. An exhaustive search later we found ourselves in the Cutthroat Lake trailhead, a bit disappointed to not have a place to call home for the weekend. Little did we know this would be a blessing in disguise – a little searching brought us to the perfect camp site: peek-a-boo views of Cutthroat peak, pretty close to water, and with privacy. We made camp, made dinner, and settled in for the night.

We awoke at 5:30 on Saturday morning, aiming to be on the trail by 7am. We left at 7:15 and made quick time on the approach. Various conservation groups have been working on standardizing the access trail from the Blue Lake trail, and we found an amazing climber’s trail to the approach. 90 minutes later we arrived at the base of the route to find a group roping up in front of us. Along the way, we came to another group of folks and I recognized Nathan Foster. Nathan helped teach the Self Rescue course I took and is generally a pleasant guy to be around. He was out with some friends from the Intense Basic course that he helps teach.

We waited around for about half an hour and then started up the route. The crux of the climb is about 40’ off the deck (if that), and I found myself a little sketched out. I had seen the group in front of me go left here, but that’s just thin hands and some steep smearing to not a great handhold. I tried to go left twice but scared myself both times. Right is reachy, and a bit off angle, but after I psyched myself up to it, I made the move. The climbing got much easier from there and I found myself at a good belay stance off a shoulder height tree and belayed Melissa up.

The next interesting feature is a 15’ chimney. I’d never climbed a chimney before, and it was super fun! It helps that this was easy climbing, so it was just fun movement on rock. This brought to the top of pitch 2, and when I started pulling rope I immediately realized the mistake of adding 90-degree bends in the rope (rope drag is terrible!). Luckily a party was descending and unclipped the top piece for me. This was immediately way better. Another quick belay and we were both through most of the 5th class climbing.

I didn’t even think to transition away from “rock climbing” mode into “scrambling” mode, so I pitched out the rest of the ascent. There was some substantial exposure, but the ascent was easy for the most part with a few low fifth class moves. Being on belay and setting protection gave me the freedom to pick more adventurous moves in some cases rather than just walking around an obvious scramble spot. Pros and cons, I guess. I got a little lost in the pitches described in the guidebook, so I ended up building a gear anchor (a gear anchor!) one pitch below the camel’s back. A couple pitches later (and one alpine whale move), we encountered the camel’s back, a wildly exposed traverse over the ridge. As I was belaying Melissa up to me a few drops of rain fell. I don’t know about you, but right before an exposed friction move is not when I want it to start raining. Thankfully it was just a few drops, and everything remained dry. You can go around it but going over it is so much fun. But, bless the person who put a bolt in the middle of the traverse.

Some more 4th class terrain found us at the base of the boulder problem for the true summit. The style of climbing changed immediately, and we found our way to the top after a couple fun, committing moves. 6 hours after we started up o_o.

Nathan’s group reached the summit right behind us. They had unroped and were scrambling many of the upper pitches I decided to pitch out. It was amazing to see Nathan and Mike coaching the less experienced members of their party. They were both so incredibly patient the entire way up and pushed one member of the party just gently enough so that they all had a wonderful time and reached the summit. We were near each other for much of the ascent, and it was fun to chat with those folks some.

The views were glorious! All day we had been gradually rising to better and better views. The summit was no different, but being a bit concerned about incoming rain we didn’t hang around for long and began to scramble the descent. Melissa and I don’t always find the easiest way to scramble down things, and we definitely found some adventurous steps on the way down, but had fun getting back to the rap stations. Nathan helped accelerate some of our route finding with extra beta (like the open book move getting back into the gulley … that did not look like scrambling terrain!). At the rap stations we teamed up and decided to join ropes – we had a rope, they had two, so three ropes for three raps would be most efficient. Unfortunately, here a traffic jam ensued. Several parties had scrambled past Nathan’s group on the first rap. Another party decided to join in on the rap train, and they found all of the climbers wanting to use the established ropes. More efficient for everyone, but Nathan’s group got a little stuck behind folks.

We all got off in good spirits. Melissa and I hung around for a little bit and then started the walk out. A little loose scree and then we were on good trail. Feeling good physically and high emotionally, we walked fast and ran out to the trailhead, 11:24 c2c.

This was an incredible day in the mountains. The climbing was good and easy. The environment stunning. My climbing partner amazing. It was a stretch of my overall skills and learned things. I’m so hooked and can’t wait to go back.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.