Northeast Buttress of Colchuck Peak
Northern aspect of Colchuck peak at dawn with our approximate line of ascent.
The Northeast Buttress of Colchuck Peak inevitably draws comparisons to the Serpentine Arete route due to its proximity, grade, and length. Offering up to 18 pitches of sustained 5.8 climbing on solid stone with only 3 pitches of fourth class terrain, it is in my opinion a much more high quality climb. At least two routes have been established on the buttress; the Beckey route and the Kearney route. We had only Beckey's description so that is the route we chose.
The route involves crossing a pocket glacier and descending the Colchuck Glacier, both of which can be very icy late in season, which we found out first hand. I now understand how a father and son climbing team perished on the Colchuck Glacier a couple of summers ago.
This route is one of the best alpine rock climbs I have done, especially at the grade. Certainly the equal of Stuart's famous North Ridge and the better of many others. This route will stand out in my mind for years to come.
Do it in a day
Leading off of the ledge system
Aaron Zabriske emailed me looking for a partner for Sunday. This was perfect as I had plans for a trail run on Saturday with my running partner. (Note to self - you are 40 now. It is probably not smart to do a long, hard run the day before climbing a long route in a day with a strong 25 year old. Lesson learned.)
We got an early start from the Mountaineer's Creek trailhead and made quick time to the far end of Colchuck Lake. We hiked up the moraine to find pretty slabs, waterfalls and alpine heather below the pocket glacier. For those taking two days to do this route and are willing to carry over or back track a bit, this spot would be a sublime place to camp. We also found a cervical collar, a self inflating sleeping pad, and a belay parka. We surmised they had been blown here by a helocopter during a rescue on Serpentine Arete earlier in the summer.
The buttress toe was guarded by a deep, wide moat. We found a spot downhill from the start mentioned in the Beckey guide where we could gain the route. This start was one of the best pitches on the route - steep, clean climbing on a strenous crack system. Unfortunately this also forced us to climb through the frighteningly loose pink dyke mentioned in Beckey's description.
Once through the pink dyke we found delightfully solid rock with good cracks that took us to the large fourth class ledge system leading left below the ridge crest. We simu-climbed the ledge system and set up a belay below a tricky looking section leading to an inside corner. This was the crux for us, climbing steep, smooth rock before able to blindly place a cam in a hortizontal crack.
From there the route gained the ridge before crossing to the other side and then one final pitch to the summit plateau.
The descent was familiar, but the icy nature of the lower Colchuck Glacier was sketchy. I had chosen to wear light boots and aluminum crampons while Aaron opted for steel crampons on his approach shoes. I'm not sure who had the better idea, but Aaron's descent on the skiiers right margin of the glacier looked like a better choice than the left side which I took.
The tiring plod down the scree and talus of the moraine brought us to the trail and back to the car. All in all a tiring 14 hour trip with a super partner.