A few weekends ago, Jimmy and I spent two nights and days up at Slesse camped at the propellor cairn. Here are some notes from the trip that include details on our East pillar attempt and a descent of the SE couloir from the summit.
Day 1 – East Pillar attempt
I think Jimmy and I were more excited to just be away from life and the computer for a bit, so we both failed to set an alarm. Our plan was to wake up and climb the East pillar in a day, with an intention of returning down Marc Andre’s new descent route.
I opened my eyes at what was probably a good 530 or 6. The fact that I didn’t know the time reflects our over-confidence and lack of planning, both of which we would pay for later. We did breakfast, coffee, then headed toward the approach to the route.
I was more interested in the direct approach up the slabs, then heading up what are supposed to be 3 pitches of 5.8-5.10 terrain to the start of the book pitches. This approach method is documented in Blake’s book, Cascade Rock. I was less interested in the other option, which was to gain the ridge crest that runs down from the route to the notch used to access the NEB from the propellor cairn side. In the end, Jimmy and I decided to go with this second approach option, which was listed in other books (specifically Fred’s red guide).
It required a full 60m pitch + some simul-cimbing of what varied from 5.5 to 5.8 to gain the ridge 100m up from the notch. We then did another 5.9 pitch which passed left around a roof/capped ramp, over a slab with a piton or two (we found a second one on the descent), and up a one-move-wonder-but-still-challenging-in-approach-shoes-left-slanting-wide-crack to some small trees. From here we simuled and simul-soloed (placing faith in terrain belays) to reach the base of the first 5.10 pitch (pitch 2 in the Mclane guide). Most of the ridge crest from this point contained really easy scrambling on heathered slopes and boulders, but we simuled as I’ve promised myself lately that I would push for simul-climbing rather than soloing in an effort to reduce controllable risk. I’m beginning to believe that simul-climbing is actually a lot less riskier but not too much slower if done right. We would continue in this fashion through the initial 5.8 corner to the base of the 5.10 pitches. At the base of the 5.8, we found two rotting pitons which we would later use on the descent. The approach could be done in 2 hours at reasonable pass by a fit party.
Jimmy led the first 5.10 pitch in two, splitting it up mostly due to some route finding challenges above the left-facing corner and proceeding flake. His second lead deposited us at a belay under a small roof feature on two quarter inch bolts. This total first pitch is probably 40 meter in length, with 10 m of climbing after passing the bolt mentioned in several guide books. From this bolt above the flake, go up and move left around the small overlap/corner and then up through the small overlap.
Though we had planned to lead in blocks, I took over the lead at the bolted station in hopes that I would be able to move faster as the better rock climber between the two of us. To my own dismay, I felt gripped and out-of-touch climbing up the technical face where I found protection via set space, rusty button heads. I clipped two, then reached the third after placing some small cams behind a hollow-sounding flake that did fortunately hide a great pin. At this third buttonhead, I gave paused to whether the route went right or left. Unable to find the fourth bolt marked on the topo to guide me, I traversed to the left, reversed the moves, climbed up, reversed the moves, then longingly looked out right to what seemed to be easier climbing. I started out right, but then stopped midway through some moves I didn’t want to reverse . It seemed like the right path, but I didn’t want to find myself well above the old rusty button heads on harder terrain.
We were only two pitches up at this point, but Jimmy and I took tally of our situation. We decided that it was time to go down. While only noon or so, we were on track for a long route at our current pace. This followed by a long, complex, and unknown descent (the SE couloir descent I’ll discuss below). Without any bivy gear whatsoever, we were both interested in coming back stronger and more prepared than pushing our way up into a forced bivvy.
Learning from our failure
In camp that night and in the following days we would discuss turning around. On one hand, with so much day left, it seemed a funny choice: why forsake a spectacular ‘tick’ because it would have involved a little bit of suffering? We were through some of the harder climbing already (there were just a handful of 5.10 pitches). Through consideration of our decision, I think we both have come to admit that we have moved past the glorification of suffering and epics, and become more willing to acknowledge mistakes in evaluating our preparation, skill level, the route. Suffering and epics are sometimes part of the game, but they are not what I enjoy about climbing.
Looking back, I am thinking climbing through those moves encountered on the east face. I know I could do so with poise, BUT, it would take me more time to choose to accept the risk. I was unable to commit to that commitment under the time pressure. I think what I had failed to do, and a huge reason for the lack of confidence I felt in committing to moving up on my pitch (and more generally the route) was the huge gap between my expectations for the route and reality. I expected moderate climbing on discontinuous cracks that could be protected to a reasonably degree. Instead, I had found face climbing on marginal protection via hard-to-inspect in-situ gear. The situation was challenging to confront and reason through in that moment.
Dissecting our failure on the route even further, I would also identify these other causes:
1) Our lack of ability to build a set of expectations on what we would find from guide book literature. Cascade’s Rock indeed describes the climbing on the East Pillar as an “inobvious line via face…” climbing. Somehow we read passed this.
2) The time-and-place decision making due to our lack of research reduce our confidence: “should we take the direct approach or gain the ridge near the notch and traverse from there?” I think these sorts of discussions, when just starting the day, are a far cry from the excellence in execution often required for complex climbing objectives.
3) Lack of the appropriate gear. Bivvy gear, pins, or bolt kit would all have made continuing up a more reasonable choice for us.
Quite coincidentally, near the time of writing this, I found this article by Arno of the Rock Warriors’ Way: https://warriorsway.com/the-importance-of-doing-a-thorough-thinking-process/. Arno’s suggestion of defining a goal, the consequences and a plan seems like one way to consider taking a more calculated approach to planning an objective like this in the future.
Whatever, the approach next time, I am excited to go back for the East Pillar. It represents a challenging climb from which I will probably learn a lot more. The “improbable” line it weaves just left of the East Face is appealing, the ambiguity of the features from afar leave me wondering what will be up there. It will be fun to return stronger physically and mentally.
Day 2 – North East Buttress and SE Couloir descent option
Our feeling of lack of preparation then leaked into the rest of the weekend. We had headed up to camp at the start of the weekend with route information for North Rib, NEB, East Pillar, and Navigator Wall. The evening of day 1, we contemplated what to tackle with our remaining time and energy. The Navigator Wall seemed too ambitious given our experience that day on the East Pillar, and returning to East Pillar with a more developed strategy and set of expectations, though somewhat enticing, didn’t seem logical. We had climbed the NEB before, and climbing the North Rib would required inventing a new approach from the propellor cairn (feasible, has likely been done before, but an unknown to us at that moment). In the end, we decided to climb the NEB, but then to investigate a new descent route pioneered by Marc Andre Leclerc. We brought a very lightweight bivvy kit so that we could try to link the NEB into the North Rib via the crossover if we reached the summit after the former in some ungodly time. With a minimal bivvy kit, we would be able to decide on the summit after the NEB if we wanted to push into the day and evening or instead just begin the new descent option.
North East Buttress
We left camp at 3am and got to the summit around 1030am after simul-ing the entire route, which I guess went in something like 4 hours after accounting for the approach. We did it with a 60m rope and a double rack between .3 and 1” cams, with a single #2 and single #3. We shortened the rope to 40m for most of the climb but used the entire length when simul-climbing through the 10a crux pitch. This allowed Jimmy to build a belay above on a nice ledge before I reached some of the more difficult climbing passing through the roof.
At the summit by 1030am, we still decided that we didn't have enough time for the North Rib in the same day without a bit of suffering, and so we decided to focus our efforts on finding our way down the SE Couloir Descent.
SE Couloirs Descent
While the climb took us 6.5 hours from camp at the propellor cairn to here, the descent took us about 7.5. It was long, complex, and much more technical than the crossover. Marc Andre provided more than enough information to tackle it, but I’ll elaborate here to provide a second opinion for those that are looking.
We chose to take the descent in order to understand the value it might add as a way down for future climbs on Slesse. Hopefully some details will allow you to descend it in a faster manner than we did should you choose to take it.
First high-level thoughts on this descent option:
- The south couloir as a descent option is optimal for those who have a reason for getting to the back of the east side of Slesse or the propellor cairn. It is not necessary in any manner for folks headed back to the car without stashed gear. The crossover descent, while it feels long, is much simpler and more appropriate for most parties.
- Parties considering this route should have ability to rappel/down-climb hundred and hundreds of feet of complex terrain with lots of loose rock. The descent is much more complex than the crossover. There aren’t many mandatory rappels, or maybe any, if you are comfortable down-climbing 5.7 on possibly loose rock. There exist only a few n-situ stations or obvious paths to follow. Most of the descent is 3rd class at a minimum with many 4th and low 5th areas. I wouldn’t call the route-finding difficult, but it requires making many small route decisions over its entire duration.
For those looking for beta, I would break it down this way:
Summit to base of 1st set of cross over rappels – We traversed along the summit of Slesse to the south, following the cairns to the two rappels made by most parties to get off the summit block. These rappels (or down-climbing) deposit you on scree slopes on the west side of the summit. To the north (skiers right) is the direction taken to the cross over descent. Here the SE couloir descent heads left. You must reach the col that can be seen below the South summit of Slesse. You can get there by down-climbing a couloir just to the left of the ridge crest straight down the hill in front of you, and then by wrapping around on 3rd, 4th, and 5th class terrain to reach this col. A faster way might be to create a new rappel station on the top of tower/out-cropping to skiers left, and then to rappel onto the scree slopes. From here you would then traverse to the col, having skipped some circuitous down-climbing.
Col to summit of South Summit of Slesse – To reach the top of the south summit, you can do what I did – lead a crazy pitch of 5.10 on stacked blocks in approach shoes, or you can take the easy way around. I recommend the later. When Jimmy followed the pitch I did in approach shoes, he literally yelled “Jeennnnggaaa” as a good joke.
To take the easy variation, scramble up the buttress beneath the south summit from the col on low 5th terrain. Traverse to the right when it reduces in angle. Do this INSTEAD of heading straight up through the somewhat attractive but steeper looking corners above. They are more challenging than appears from below.. Gain the summit.
Scramble from the south summit of Slesse down to the SE Couloir – Relatively straight forward. Down-climb to the south on third class screen slopes and gullies until you reach a short 5th class step. I lowered Jimmy down on a belay through this final step after we spent a lot of time trying to find a good anchor. I then down-climbed on the far skiers right. This puts you in at the top of the SE couloir.
Descending the SE couloir to the split – Stay in the SE couloir until you can trend out on grassy ledges out left. Stay just to the left of the couloir on the grassy ledges, but do not wrap around the ridge to skiers left more than 20m or so from the gully at any point After descending 200-300 feet, we rappelled off a block or two on the grass ledges (4th class slopes). When the couloir split was about 50m below us, I lowered Jimmy the length of the rope so he could keep scouting ahead, then dropped the rope to him and started down-climbing. Here, one must eventually return to the main gut of the couloir to descend the last 10 meters to the split.
From the split of the couloir to the slabs way below – Take the left split, which runs down underneath the navigator wall. Make 3 rappels, we left or found several single nut rappels that we trusted. These exist but it will require a careful eye to find them. The first is on the Navigator wall side of the couloir, the next two on the other side. A third 30m rappel puts you a short scramble from the heathered slopes directly beneath the Navigator Wall. Contour skiers left across these slopes aiming for the large rock horn. Traversing the last few meters to this horn is exposed and hair-raising. Rappel from this horn 30m onto a grassy ledge. From here, you must traverse skiers left and down again to more solid rock on heathered footholds and rock that is poorly held by the slope. Be careful. After your gain better rock down and to the left, begin looking for stations again. From here there are 4-5 rappels down to the slabs below. Some of them are older, some younger, and it seems they are for different rope lengths so take your time with this last part of the descent to make sure it is done right.
I wish I had more pictures to go along with the above, but I think competent parties who have the right skill level for this descent will do great as long as they give themselves plenty of time.
So who wants to go climb the East Pillar??