My good friend Dugald Dunlop and I were going to climb the Northeast Buttress of Mount Slesse – we’d done Liberty Crack the summer before and decided we should have a go at Slesse. It’s bigger, more remote, and with tricky route finding. The plan was set and we set off for Chilliwack, B.C. – it was the August long weekend, 1997. Believe it or not – we never encountered another person our entire trip.
The only guidebook we had was the one Fred Becky had wrote. Now, no disrespect to Fred Becky, but guidebook clarity isn’t exactly his strong suit. We knew generally that we had to drop off a vehicle (in our case a bike) in one drainage (as you descend the opposite (west) side of the Slesse and hike out a different drainage than the one you came in on), but we weren’t entirely sure, which drainage was which. After some mucking around, we figured out which road we needed to leave the bike on. We drove up this road, expecting it to be about 10 to 12 miles long – we were a bit shocked to come up against a gate a couple of miles up the road. The gate told us this was a weapon’s testing area and admittance was absolutely forbidden. Hmmm, Fred didn’t mention this. So we made the decision to leave the bike stashed here and deal with the extra 10 miles of hiking when we had to.
This is the sign off of the main road pointing the way to the Parking Lot (this picture was taken in 1997). Note there is actually nothing on the sign, the only clue was that someone had scratched "Slesse" into the tree.
We then headed back down the road and up the correct drainage for the start of the hike. Again, reading the guidebook, it appeared everything would be pretty obvious – it wasn’t. Our main saving grace was that we could see the Northeast Buttress of Slesse, so we knew generally where we needed to go. By a little intuitive sleuthing, we were able to find the very faint path/road that turned off the main road - our hunch was confirmed after getting out of the vehicle, moving some vegetation and seeing the word "Slesse" carved in the tree with an arrow pointing down the road (see photo). The end of this road marked the beginning of the hiking. By this time, it was getting dark, so we bivied in the back of the vehicle and set our alarms for 3:30 a.m.
Our plan was to climb Slesse over two days, bivying about ¾ of the way up the first day. We were going to climb it via the bypass route, thereby eliminating the first 5 or 6 pitches, that by all accounts didn’t seem that “classic”. At about 4 a.m. the next morning we were off and hiking by headlamp. We actually didn’t have that much trouble figuring out where to go – and arrived in the hanging basin about 2.5 hours later. It is in this basin that one starts to encounter all of the aircraft debris from the plane crash in 1956. I knew we were going to encounter this debris and actually hadn’t given it much thought. However, when you’re there and you see seat covers, engine debris, wires, etc., it all becomes quite real and you realize 62 human beings lost their lives here. It was rather sobering.
The pocket glacier, which one has to cross to access the start of the route, is quite obvious from the basin and there appear to be numerous ways to get up to it (you’re aiming for its left hand side). We probably managed to make it harder than it should have been by taking a fairly direct route – this involved some sketchy exposed scrambling where one slip could have ended the trip. Eventually we did arrive at the bottom of the pocket glacier – we stopped near a small stream and filled up our water bottles. We had decided to go with 5 litres of water – we could see a snowpatch on the bivy ledge and hoped we’d be able to wring some water out of there later on in the day.
Crossing the hanging glacier is a bit hairy. Essentially you do a little prayer to the climbing gods, and then scramble across the exposed slippery granite as fast as your lungs can carry you. We arrived at the rope up spot intact at about 8:30 a.m. – now the route finding challenges begin.
After disrespecting Mr. Becky for much of the beginning of our trip, we actually began to appreciate the topo when we started to climb. With some common sense, intuition, and some minor back tracking here and there, we were mostly able to stay on the route. I was doing all the leading, as Dugald hadn’t been climbing much so far that year (although he can still lead 5.11 off the couch).
Around the 10th pitch, you need to move from the left side of the arête onto the right side. However, the route naturally appears to go straight up. I made the same mistake probably half the people who climb the route make and went straight instead of right. There are bail slings, but I just down-climbed and got back on route – that was the only significant route finding error we made and it was pretty minor.
The next pitch after this is the best of the route (and the crux). It is a steep pitch with a short overhanging section. The gear placements are there but are a bit fiddly in spots. While I was climbing, I was thoroughly enjoying myself and the position.
This is the crux pitch (5.9+) of the Northeast Buttress. Note the looming overhanging section.
After this crux pitch, there were three more pitches (one relatively short one) with some short cruxy sections, and then you break out onto the big bivy ledge. We arrived there at about 4 p.m. and thought briefly about continuing on, but the weather was stellar, and we both wanted to spend the night out on the mountain.
We had both brought bivy sacks and a down jacket, and we each used a coiled up rope to sleep on. We actually had a dual sunset that evening, as the sun went down behind the mountain, but then “rose” again as it shone through a lower gap. The night was cool, windless and passed more or less quickly. Dugald did play a little joke on me though. I woke up at one point in the night and asked Dugald what time it was – he said “just after midnight”. I thought, “man, this is going to be a long night – I only went to sleep an hour ago, and I’m already cold and uncomfortable”. Then Dugald started to laugh, and told me it was actually 5:30 in the morning. – this is when he invented the term “bivy humour”.
Sunset on the bivy ledge - I'm wearing every piece of clothing that I have (photo: D. Dunlop)
We got going as soon as the sun warmed us up. Dugald, having gotten back into good climbing form the day before, led the first four pitches. On the third pitch I had one of those incidents when you wonder why anyone solos big alpine faces. While seconding the pitch I grabbed a big solid looking hold, pulled up and it came off in my hand. I fell. Of course, I didn’t fall far, as I was seconding, but it was a reminder of the dangers lurking everywhere when climbing in the alpine.
The fifth pitch off the bivy ledge is another one of the crux pitches. I led this pitch and found it quite fun, as did Dug. The remaining four pitches were all stellar – on good rock, with awesome positions, and no route finding issues. We arrived at the summit at about noon. We took some pictures, drank and ate a little, re-read the description for the descent, and then headed down. Again, by following the guidebook description, and with some route finding skills, we were able to get down from the summit fairly easily. There was one additional rappel that wasn’t described in our route description, but other than that, we got back to the ground without any issues.
The Long, Long Way Down
It was here, however, when you start to realize just how much vertical relief there is in the Coast Range. Although Slesse isn’t that high (8002’), the bottom of it is pretty close to sea level. It was at this time, when we looked down (way down) to the drainage that we had to descent into (and hopefully pick up some type of path back to our bike), we knew it was going to be a long day. There was nothing to do but start to descend. And that is what we did, for what seemed like forever. We had no issues staying on the trail; our main issues were with thirst and aching quads.
Many hours (3 or 4) and many rests later we finally managed to get down into the drainage and pick up a relatively new trail heading in the right direction (down the drainage). It was at this time (about 9 p.m.) that Dugald started to have problems. He basically had bonked – he had no energy, felt light-headed, could barely walk and wanted to sleep. I think he was dehydrated. I was willing to bivy right there and carry on in the morning, but Dugald wanted to sleep for an hour or so and then see how he felt and carry on if he could. So Dug slept for about an hour and felt marginally better – he was still pretty wobbly but thought he could go on. I took both the ropes and my pack, leaving him with a light pack and off we went – it was dark by now. Dugald needed a stick to help him walk.
This picture is taken after we had finished the rappels on Slesse - you still need to descent all the way to the valley floor and then walk 10 miles back to your vehicle (in our case a bike)
We continued to follow this path down the valley in the dark for hour upon hour – there were mileage signs (that were getting smaller) but we didn’t even know for sure if this road would come out where our bike was stashed. However, at about 2 in the morning, we arrived at the gate and found the bike. Now, I was absolutely thrashed and just wanted to sleep on the road until morning, but Dug had fully recovered by now and volunteered to ride the bike back the 10 miles or so to our vehicle (this was the guy that could barely walk 3 hours ago)
While he was gone, I lay down on the road and slept. About 1.5 hours later he was back and we headed off to Chilliwack. We stopped at the Husky and had a big greasy meal with all the truckers at 5 in the morning. By the time we had finished it was getting light. We decided to book into a motel and catch 6 or 7 hours of sleep before we headed home.
It was pretty funny, we checked into some hotel chain in Chilliwack at six in the morning; two guys with greasy hair, who hadn’t sleep in a bed for three nights and looked like crap. The woman checking us in asked if we wanted separate beds. We assured her that we did.