Shifting my weight back and forth delicately between small friable edges, I press my cheek against the dark stone and pry outwards on a favorably positive edge to see if the hold flexes, it does. I dip my hand into my chalk bag and leave a white chalky hand print on the rock to remind myself not to use the edge as a foothold as I move higher. Just a week earlier, my friend Tony took an unexpected fall off this very same pitch when his footholds crumbled and this weighs strongly on my mind as I commit to a high step and begin to search for a hold with my right hand. A two finger sidepull with a convenient located thumb catch materializes and I rock over onto the high foot and hold my breath, praying the edge doesn’t crumble as I make the long reach to a solid hold. The established line traversed left to a flake a few meters below but the rock seemed loose over there, in fact that was where Tony had broken his holds and fallen when we scoped the route together, so this time I chose to go straight up the face on thin and sustained climbing in hopes of more solid rock.
It’s not often I find myself using small thumb’derclings while free soloing in the alpine, but these help me stay in balance as I tip-toe left to better holds and a belay ledge where I rejoin the regular ‘East Pillar’. The climbing on the next two pitches is supposed to be the crux of the route, but is a fair bit easier than the pitch I just climbed as the holds are larger, more positive and less brittle. To my right I can see two friends from Squamish waking up on their bivy ledge on the classic Northeast Buttress and we exchange waves as I continue upwards, the climbing now less stressful and quite fun. The ‘crux’ pitch of the East Pillar, a 5.10+ corner, is my favourite. Bomber stemming, positive crimps and an exposed finish moving onto the arete at the the top, classic.
From here a ledge leads left to a large terrace where I switch back to approach shoes for the remainder of the route. The climbing is generally easy but the swirling mist and fog adds character to the steep dark wall. I imagine falling off, flying through the dense mist unable to see the inevitable end far below, but I’m not going to fall and I smile as I race up to the summit ridge and check the time. Two hours to free solo the East Pillar, not bad, the first solo ascent as well I am sure. I continue along the south ridge nearly to the summit but deek off west to join the standard descent route and pick my way back down to the col between the main and South peaks of Slesse. A quick scramble brings me to the south summit where I continue south through a scree basin to the col below the third summit. This is an eerie place, the impact zone of flight 810 looms just above, and pieces of airplane wreckage strewn about on ledges everywhere. I can see a tail section of the airplane hanging above me through the mist as I downclimb the steep couloir leading back to towards the base of the ‘big’ lines on Slesse.
This descent, essentially reversing the ‘Southeast Buttress’ of the South Peak, is quick and effective in bringing me to the base of my next objective, the ‘Navigator Wall’. As the Southeast Buttress and Navigator Wall share the same first two pitches, I can simply traverse a grassy ledge and scramble the moderate terrain to the base of the first crux pitch. I check the time here, 9:36 AM, about an hour and a half since I began my descent from the top of East Pillar, faster than expected.
I switch back into rock shoes and start up the 5.10+ overhanging corner, being careful to dodge loose blocks along the way. The climbing is steep and positive and I finally get to enjoy some athletic movement as I reach a solid jug with one hand and kick my feet off the wall with a loud ‘whoooop’! The Navigator Wall has a poor reputation for unpleasant climbing on loose dirty rock, but nonetheless it remains my favourite route on Slesse. The line is badass, the climbing steep and exposed, and in contrast to the East Pillar the upper pitches are some of the best. Those upper pitches, however, are gaurded by a chossy overhanging diorite headwall, positioned 1700 ft above the cirque below. I have to move very delicately and test each hold methodically as I navigate a series of loose 5.10 roofs. The final moves of the headwall are some of the wildest of the route, exiting the security of a corner and handrailing across an overhanging wall to mantle onto the slab above. I cut my feet and campus across the rail, catching a small glimpse of the cirque far below before rolling over the lip on a bomber foot hold.
A few more meters of steep terrain bring me to a comfortable sandy ledge where I consider taking my rock shoes off for a moment, but I decide not to break my rhythm and head right on improving quality stone towards the base of the excellent pitch 18. This pitch climbs a spectacular steep handcrack dihedral for about 25 meters, likened to the famed Split Pillar pitch in Squamish. As I cruise up on slammer hand jams the clouds thicken and envelop me in a dense fog that adds to the ambiance of the wall. Above the corner, one more pitch brings me to the airy summit of the spire in a dense fog and very poor visibility. A look at the clock reveals that I’ve spent about an hour and fifteen minutes on the route. I don’t linger on the summit for long, as I want to be off the mountain in case it begins to rain. I start down the Southeast Buttress route for a second time, moving quickly and deliberately.
On long solo days I often find myself repeating some mantra like thoughts in my mind at some point during the climb and today was no different. However my thoughts during my second descent were particularly amusing and worthy of sharing. I was feeling ‘on’ and moving smoothly, executing slick cross through moves with my feet as if I were dancing my way downwards through the clouds. I thought to myself, ‘I feel like a cat, I feel like a ninja! I feel like a ninja cat! An ALPINE ninjacat, hell yeah’ Repeat…. Probably some mental byproduct of a latent OCD or something, but certainly better than thinking to yourself that you feel shitty. I was stoked.
I made it back to the slabs above the propeller cairn before noon, and seriously contemplated taking the easy way out and hiking the trail back to the memorial plaque where I had planned to meet my girlfriend Brette in the evening. We had driven up from Squamish the day before and bivied at the plaque so that we could both get early starts for our different objectives. While I tried my triple linkup she would go for a solo ascent of the North Rib, a route she had never climbed before, and has almost certainly never seen a solo ascent by a woman.
I told myself that the clouds were becoming too threatening, that I had already climbed the Northeast Buttress too many times, and that my knees were feeling a bit sore. But it was only noon, and I knew that if I bailed now I would be upset with myself in the future, as I had no desire to solo the East Pillar again in order to do the triple. This was my chance, the route is moderate enough that I could solo it in the rain anyways, so I started jogging towards the base of the Northeast Buttress.
The pocket glacier cirque was in good condition, much less dodgy than when Brette and I crossed it three weeks earlier, when we team free soloed the route together. I jogged up through the spectacular glacial cirque to the start of the ramps that lead to the buttress and stopped to strip down to nothing but light shorts and plug in my headphones. With Parov Stelar’s ‘Catgroove’ blasting in my ears I took off as quickly as I could, running up the third class ramps that give way to moderate 5th class climbing on the buttress itself. I took the Beckey ramps to avoid the 5.10a crux mid route, just so that I could keep scrambling in approach shoes, moving as quickly as possible. As I passed the bivy ledge mid route, I checked the time, 30 minutes, and continued up the 4th class ledges above, breathing heavily at this point.
As I reached the first pitch of the summit tower I came across two climbers on their second day on the route. I pulled out my headphones and stopped to chat and give some beta for the descent. They told me that Brette had cruised by on the North Rib earlier in the day which was great to hear, then I continued up the steeper summit tower. One pitch below the summit I ran into my friend Bram and Ashley from Squamish, also on their second day en route and stopped to chat with each of them before finding myself on the summit one hour and ten minutes after starting the route.
I think that the Northeast Buttress speed record should be a ‘thing’ in the cascades, I’ll submit 1hr 10mins as my current time :] Although I stopped three times to chat and probably could have broken an hour if I decided to be antisocial. I recorded my link up in the summit register then down climbed off the tower and started down the Crossover Pass descent.
Brette had been seen cruising the Rib, but had not recorded her ascent in the Summit Register so I deduced that she likely gave the summit tower a miss and descended from the notch where the Rib ends and joins the standard descent route. This made sense as she was soloing the route onsight, and must have reached the notch in the peak of the poor visibility, making the decision to begin her descent quite logical at that point. Regardless, I yelled her name a few times as I descended the long ridge to Crossover Pass just to reassure myself that she had not gotten off route in the clouds somewhere. I can be a bit of a worry-wart for someone who likes to do dangerous things myself!
I made it to the alpine meadows below the North face of the mountain around 4:00 PM, and suddenly realized that if I boogied I had a chance at making the round trip from the Memorial Plaque in 12 hours. I am a total time geek in the mountains and got psyched on this challenge, so I plugged my headphones back in and started running down the flagged trail at top speed. A few songs later I was maxing out my cardio as I ran the short uphill where then crossover pass trail re-joins the main trail 100 meters below the Plaque. I sprinted back to the memorial where Brette was waiting and reading a book, and checked the time. It was 4:24, exactly 12 hours and four minutes to make the round trip from our bivy.
I was stoked, and Brette was equally stoked! She had managed to navigate the broken North Glacier alone in just her tennies, no tools or crampons, and onsight free soloed the North Rib to the notch below the summit tower. She reported that she climbed about a pitch on the tower itself but backed off in high winds and poor visibility as I had deduced earlier, and had descended uneventfully to the Memorial where she had been reading her book since. She didn’t go to the summit, but still soloed 20 pitches to the notch completing the rib itself. Proud.
The hike out went quickly and we were at my Mom’s house in Agassiz by about 6pm, in time for dinner. The next day was my sisters wedding and a great party indeed! I’m still feeling last night’s tequila a tiny bit while I write this in fact.
I am done with Slesse for the season now. The only hard route I have left to do on the mountain is the unrepeated East Face… next year maybe. The Buttress in winter is on the tick list of course as well, but might not happen for a while as I plan to be away in Patagonia for the next winter, which is not a bad trade at all :]
I can’t recommend free soloing the East Pillar or Navigator Wall routes, they are too loose and sketchy to make for great scrambles. But they are a tonne of fun to climb with ropes and deserve more attention than they get. Really, the NEB speed challenge should get some folks psyched, try to beat an hour! I think one could get it down to 40 minutes or so, which would be sick. As standards keep improving, maybe a solo speed climb in winter, Ueli Steck style, will be in order, But until then….
All photos taken during previous climbs of the East Pillar and Navigator Wall with Tony Mclane and Brette Harrington respectively.