South Early Winter Spire, SW CouloirThe weather had been crystal clear for two weeks, so it was no surprise when the rain came right as we left for the trailhead on Friday night. My brother Ian and I were off to try for the South West couloir on the South Early Winters Spire. I had seen a post on Cascade Climbers about the route and since I had never actually been climbing in the Liberty bell group I thought it was about time to make a visit and get in on the
We arrived at a snowed in Blue lake trailhead at 9:30 pm. We decided to pitch our tent on a patch of pavement that was dry. I could just barely see Liberty bell through the encroaching darkness. One of the big things that is so nice about the Liberty bell group is that there’s lots of quality climbing for such a short approach. For me it always seems that any given climb in the Cascades is around 70 percent approach, and 30 percent climbing. The night was uneventful and I woke at 6:00 and boiled myself a pot of green tea. Sometime during the night another car had pulled into the cramped parking lot. Ian and I saw the man sleeping in the front seat of his truck. He soon awoke and came outside and introduced himself as Carl. Carl was meeting with a large climbing group from the Skagit area, something like seventeen students. They were hoping to spend a few days climbing as many routes as possible. We got all our gear packed and left the trailhead at 8:00. The approach was great for one main reason, it was short!
Ian and I arrived at the base of the SW couloir around 9:00. We sat down and each ate a snickers bar, all while musing about the route. It looked to be very straightforward and short. The only thing that looked to be a problem was the upper couloir, it was filled with crappy delaminated rotten ice with lots of loose wet scree and mud showing through, the usual Cascade cat litter. We geared up and started up the route. The first part of the couloir was a breeze, but the second part would prove to be much harder. I looked up at the icy second couloir from its base and thought that it would be an easy solo, this turned out to be wrong. I passed the first mixed ice step and it wasn’t until I was midway up the steep rocky ice section that I realized a rope would be very very useful.
It was one of those deals where the ice was hollow underneath; so only really thick sections would hold front points. Most of the ice would break and reveal mud and scree over more rock, which offered no purchase. I ended up keeping one crampon on the rock, and the other on the ice until I reached a rock constriction that lead to a relatively snow free patch of class three scree. Ian was waiting for me at the start of the ice pitch. I set up a quick belay on a crack and got out the rope.
I should mention that a blizzard had engulfed us from just after the time I started up the ice section. So it was cold and windy. I then made five attempts to toss the rope to Ian. I was getting pissed. A large group had caught up to us and was starting to climb the ice pitch, all I could think about was how we should have been on the summit at least an hour ago. I finally submitted to mother nature, and came to the conclusion that my throwing arm wasn’t as strong as the wind bitch slapping me in the face. I tied one end of the rope to my belay and rappelled down to Ian and tossed him the rope. I then self-belayed myself back up and got ready to belay Ian up. By this time a rope team of four had passed us with another team of three starting up. Ian kept looking at me and I kept yelling at him to get climbing. I finally heard him yell that one of his crampons had fallen off. Shit, Shit, this sucks, was all I could think. It took him a while to get his crampon back on, the whole while I just sat at my belay freezing my pants off. I was standing at a weird angle that was causing my right leg to go numb. He looked up at me and I gave him the thumbs up, he started moving.
The second rope team of three had passed us by this point. There was another team reaching the base of the second couloir. I was getting more pissed, we had better get on the summit soon was all I could think! After a few steps, Ian stopped again. His other crampon had fallen off this time. Wow, things could not be going worse for us. I was just happy that he hadn’t decided to solo up the route like I had. Loosing a crampon midway up the rock and ice pitch with no rope would have been disastrous; I shudder to think of the possible outcome. By this time, enough people had been up the route so there were crappy steps here and there. I told Ian to take off his crampons and just climb up the damn thing; the summit was no more than one hundred vertical feet away, if that. Ian finally made it up and we boogied are way up to the top.
I sat on the top and looked around. The view wasn’t bad; big puffy clouds hid most of the really good stuff. The large group up top belonged to the Skagit Mountaineers. I started talking to one of the leaders for the Skagit group and asked if we might be able to jump in on their rappel, seeing as how they had two ropes (on that note, one of the lessons I learned was always bring two ropes if you’re going to be climbing on the Liberty Bell group. The approach isn’t bad, just haul the extra rope, it sucks without it). We where cordially invited to jump on their rappel. I talked to one of the guys and we decided that they would send one person down, and then I would go down and help to set up the second rappel station using my rope and one of theirs.
The first guy went down and I soon followed him. He didn’t like the looks of the tree that is normally used to rappel off of so we decided to place a nut in this really nice crack and back it up with the tree stump. It took about an hour and a half to get everyone off the route; we had a caravan of people rappelling, something like twelve people using the one setup.
It was nice to get off. Ian and I packed up our stuff and said our farewells. The glissade down wasn’t too bad. The high point came when we finally got out of there and stopped at the Birds View Brewery for a nice cold beer.
I learned a few important lessons that day. It’s better to set up a belay and be safe then to climb free and be faster on terrain that is potentially fatal. Always check your gear and know how it is going to perform (sounds stupid, but its good to remind ourselves of the basics). Bring the right amount of gear, such as two ropes instead of one. Never underestimate a route, I constantly try to keep myself from doing this but so often it is easy to do, most times without knowing that we are doing it. Also, I would like to thank the Skagit Mountaineers group for allowing us to jump on their rope, thanks guys! All in all, it was a fun climb; I didn’t think it was all that special. If anything I would stay up there a few days and climb the rock and hit the SW couloir route if nothing else is open or weather sucks.