This is a Class 5 climb that traverses into and out of several notches. The route is not at all obvious from a distance. Most of the climbing can be done un-belayed but there are three short Class 5 sections of varying difficulty. Time from car to summit = 3-4 hours. Time from Sheep Lake to summit = 2-3 hours.
This climb begins at the major gully cutting diagonally up (southeastward) on the north end of the west side of the peak. There are two ways to approach the gully: 1) by way of the High-Route Trail that begins from Seven Devils Lake near the trailhead campground, and 2) from Sheep Lake.
1 -- High-Route Trail
From the Seven Devils Trailhead (7,600 ft), walk the road to the campground and take the short trail to Seven Devils Lake. On the north side of the lake find a climber’s path west into the basin beyond. A trail climbs steeply up to a slanting ledge leading right. The trail reaches a saddle north of Mirror Lake in about a quarter-mile. The Tower of Babel will be visible from this saddle. The trail then contours the south slope of the ridge and shortly arrives at a second saddle WNW of Mirror Lake. This saddle is characterized by two crags on its north end. Leave the trail here and contour the ridge southward to the obvious 8,700-ft saddle immediately below Babel’s North Ridge. Walk to the south end of the saddle where it butts up against the rising wall of the ridge-proper. Descend along the wall SW until the major gully is reached (about 100-200 yards from the saddle and about 100 vertical feet of drop). Distance from trailhead to gully is about 2 miles.
2 -- Sheep Lake Approach
The major gully ought to be visible from the lake. The gully terminates at the deep notch between the “Turret of Babel” (our name for the large subsidiary tower on Babel’s North Ridge) and the main peak itself. From the east side of the lake, simply climb upslope over talus and scree to the objective. It’s about an 800-ft climb over a rough half-mile.
Major Gully to Second Notch
The gully ends at a deep notch where a descent down the other side is not possible (or ludicrous). Climbing in the gully is Class 3 on lots and lots of loose talus. Fortunately the gully is not a long one. Just before the notch there is a blocky ledge that leads to a scrub pine. Take this ledge. Directly above the pine is a chimney with two or three chockstones guarding it. You can climb the chimney (mid-5th?) or climb the small, licheny face to the right of it (5.2 for 10 ft). Another small face (5.1 for 10 ft) then slabby Class 4 gets you to the second notch.
Note: if you would also like to climb the “Turret of Babel,” see below.
Second Notch to Third (Big) Notch
Just like the first notch, the second notch cannot be down-climbed on the other side. You have to climb the wall on the right if you’re going to continue. The good news is there’s a chimney on the wall at your disposal. The bad news is the chimney is really awkward to climb in. It is narrow (shoulder-width) and leans slightly (to the right). With a pack on—especially a large carry-over pack—the chimney may be impossibly narrow. In this case, it is 5.5 because you have to make the climbing more difficult just so you won’t get your pack stuck (i.e., you have to climb outside of the chimney as opposed to in it). Fortunately, it is a simple matter to haul packs up the wall to the left of the chimney if you need to. Without a pack on, you can get fully into the chimney and it is then no harder than Class 4. Once above the chimney, move leftward (Class 3) and descend slightly to the big notch below the main summit structure. The big notch is actually two smaller notches separated by a large boulder/small crag.
Third (Big) Notch to Fourth Notch
Skirt the large boulder in the middle of the big notch on its west side by descending through some trees. Now contour out on the Northwest Face for about 100 ft on a ledge (Class 3) until it is feasible to begin climbing up into the depression above. The depression leads to the fourth notch. From the ledge, Class-4 face climbing easing to Class 3 gains the notch, which, like its predecessors, requires you to climb the wall on its right to get out of it.
Fourth Notch to Summit
The fourth notch is very tight. Here is the crux of the route: a 20-ft chimney climbs out of the notch. The chimney features stemming and all the lichenous rock you could ever ask for. We rated it Class 5.6 with our heavy carry-over packs on. Without packs, it would be easier. How much easier is hard to say. Plus, we did it all unroped, which always makes things seem harder. Once above the chimney, the terrain is merely Class 2 & 3 scrambling all the way to the summit, which is not far away.
You could down-climb a lot of this route. We encountered nary a rappel anchor so supposed our ascent was a First Ascent. We have since discovered we were not the first. As it is, you’d have to build your own rappel anchors. Certainly, the 5.6 chimney needs a rappel, as does the awkward leaning chimney unless you were to down-climb it without your packs on.
You could always descend by another route such as the Class-3 South Ridge Route. This route leads back to Sheep Lake, so if you’re camped there, you’re good-to-go. However, if you were doing Babel as a day-trip from the car, the South Ridge takes you in the wrong direction. It would take anywhere from 1 to 2 hours to descend the South Ridge to the lake depending on your tolerance for scree and talus.
Climbing the "Turret of Babel"
As an appetizer, you can climb the “Turret of Babel” on the way. The “turret” is the major crag north of the major gully. About 100 feet before the notch is a set of trees on the left. Behind these trees is a Class-4 break in the wall that allows you to gain the top of it. Climb up and right from the break to a small amphitheater with a deep chasm on the left. Arc around the chasm to the north end of the turret (Class 3). A short Class-4 chimney gains the crest of the turret. There are two points to the turret. The one to the left (north) is easier but slightly lower and merely requires a slabby Class-4 finish. The one next door to the south is the high-point. A slightly awkward and freakishly exposed Class-4 ledge/ramp crosses the west face of the high turret. A few choice moves on the other (south) side then gain the top. Down-climbing the ledge/ramp is probably harder than going up.
Small alpine rack (sorry, can’t say which pieces would work best because we didn’t have any pro with us; we soloed the route)
Crampons and ice-axe for the major gully if attempting the route in early season
Map and directions for the South Ridge Route (it is not exactly a straightforward route despite the appearance to the contrary when looking down the ridge from the summit)