The beginning of the climb
On Pica Peak Fine fall day
A few weeks ago, Fred went up to the Washington Pass area, near the Liberty Bell group, to climb Wallaby Peak and Copper Point, while I was caring for a friend who had had surgery. He spied a nice looking peak that sits between Copper Point and Early Winter Spire. It looked like it might be a good climb with a short approach. According to the Beckey guide, it is Pica Peak (labeled only as 7565 on the USGS quad sheet). Subsequent research also came up with an alternate name of Poster Peak. Its east ridge route is locally known as Blue Buttress and depending on which trip report you read, this is either a fabulous climb or sort of a dog, anywhere from 5.3 to 5.7 and anywhere from 9 to 12 pitches.
Great weather was forecast this past weekend and since we are back teaching college, it’s hard to get away for anything long, so we thought to give this climb a shot.
Saturday morning just past 7 a.m. we were parked at the hairpin turn east of Washington Pass and headed up the trail. One has to leave the trail early and take a long ascending traverse over talus, boulders, steep trees and heather. It is a bit of a grunt, but 1½ hours later, we were at the base of the climb. For the Cascades, this is a short approach.
The climbing goes well although it isn't that great. The number of trees and loose rock further lessen the appeal. We realize that the widely diverging opinions and descriptions of this climb are founded in the many options existing on which way to go. One short section we walked, but overall the climbing was in the low to mid Class 5 range and we alternated leads.
About 1 or 2 pitches below the fall - but the scenario pretty much looked like this!
About 4 pitches from the summit, Fred led up a slab. He had placed three pieces of protection: a small wired stopper, a sling around a tree and an old Friend in a crack. He was about 70 feet out and complaining that the rock was poor and friable. He had thought to place another piece but no good opportunities existed, so he opted to continue up a bit further and grabbed a large slab of rock. He had hardly touched it when there was a loud crack and the rock seemingly exploded off, knocking Fred backward. Granite weighs about 165 lbs per cubic foot. By Fred’s estimation this slab was 3 feet by 2 feet by 8 inches thick – so about 700 lbs. The next thing I see is Fred, the big rock, and numerous smaller rocks falling toward me. Fred tumbles one way, but the rock continues towards me and I think, “If that hits me I am toast!” I have a death grip on the rope and feel Fred’s weight suddenly wrench on me, but I am also watching the rock, preparing to duck. My dad’s words echo in my head: “Wait until it is close before ducking. You never know which way rocks will go.” The large slab does indeed bounce off to the side and hurtles between me and Fred down the mountain. Smaller, but equally lethal rocks continue on. I am able to dodge most of them. One lands harmlessly on my pack, one grazes my helmet but crams it down on my head pretty hard. My helmet is left with a pretty good gouge in it.
Fred remembers the crack when the rock let go, then it momentarily resting against him before violently pushing him back. The next thing he knows, he’s hanging upside down with lots of air below him.
All this in the space of perhaps 3 to 5 seconds, at most.
Fred has fallen about 30 feet – he had been about 15 feet above the Friend – and to the side in a shallow gully. He is hanging upside down, arms stretched above his head and he is not moving. Oh Shit…
“Fred are you all right?” I scream. To my vast relief he immediately responds, “Yea, I’m fine”.
He tries to right himself, but his right foot is caught under the rope. I carefully lower him to a small stance where he is able to get his foot out and he stands up. I am relieved to see no blood on his head, he obviously has an intact spinal cord and all his other parts seem to be working. He carefully checks himself. Suddenly he breaks out in a grin, leans forward, and from beneath a pile of rocks pulls his favorite blue cap. It however, has two large tears in it. Fred’s pants are also shredded in several places.
Once we get past the initial shock, Fred continues up, but not before taking several pictures of his now BFF: Best Friend Forever. I am impressed that the Friend held so well, as the fall was to the side rather than down the fall line of the rope. It was damaged and will need to be retired. The rope didn’t come out unscathed either – two cuts into the sheath. The rope is about 6 years old and held such a hard fall, it is also being retired. After we got home, careful inspection of my helmet plus its age has made me decide to replace it as well.
Since we were far closer to the summit than the bottom, it was best to finish the climb. From the summit we were in two hours back to the car. Fred was starting to stiffen up. My back hurt a bit and my belay hand was sore and bit banged up. However, neither of us has any complaints – we were damned lucky with respect to the falling rock.
I have caught Fred and other people several times on lead. The usual fall while on lead provides at least some sort of warning or indication that it is about to happen and it doesn’t normally include almost a quarter of a ton of granite. The sudden violence of this fall was absolutely astounding.
Many have become blasé if not downright arrogant about climbing fourth and lower fifth class unroped. Simul-climbing is an increasingly popular technique. If Fred and I had been doing either, at least one if not both of us would probably be dead - especially if we had been simul-climbing. I am convinced that we both would have fallen, doubling (or more) the strain on the system, perhaps to failure. By being in a conventional belay, I could hang on to Fred and duck. Even if I had been hit, I had stopped Fred before the first rocks arrived, so if I had let go, I think he might have been able to catch himself on trees – and he certainly would have been stopped by the belay anchor, which was a rope sling around a big burly tree. If there was any criticism, it was that Fred was not wearing a helmet, a point he readily concedes.
Fred ended up with only some severe bruising and scrapes. Luckily, the slab did not hit him during the fall after initially pushing him off the rock. It was large enough to have done some very serious damage if it had.
Please, folks, err on the side of safety. If the consequence of a fall, regardless how caused, is serious injury or death, belay it, no matter how easy is seems. And if you belay, do it right. As a friend in Austria once said to me, “Better to be a coward for a second than dead a life time”.