Liberty Bell/South Early Winters Spire
- June 12-13, 1999
The sun was still hidden behind the mountain when we exchanged the heavy boots and crampons for rock shoes. The steep snow gully Steve and I had just climbed lay in shadow, our tracks only visible as pock marks made by the steel spikes on our feet. This was a somewhat apprehensive moment, as it was our first rock climb in an alpine environment. Granted, the Beckey Route on Liberty Bell was very popular, but was still more likely to present hazards such as loose rock, dripping snow patches, harsh weather, bad information, and severe isolation. I followed Steve on a traverse to the start of the climb with these thoughts gnawing at me slightly.
But things are always better once you get started, so I took the first lead, up an easy chimney with a chockstone that you could go up and over, or under into a tunnel. I chose to go over it to avoid ice and dripping snow underneath. I stemmed out, with one leg on each wall, pulling over the chockstone on good holds. I arrived quickly at the belay anchor, a small tree (this would become a pattern!). Steve followed and flung himself up on a variation to the right of the main line. This harder variation required a difficult move over an overhanging chockstone protected by an old piton. I followed with the pack, cursing it’s attempts to pull me off the rock.
A faster team passed us here, and we waited a few minutes in the late morning sun. We looked across to Concord Tower, which we hoped to climb next. It was hard to see the line to follow, and there were many ominous wet patches and hanging chunks of snow. Already, we were mentally bailing on this route!
I cast off, clipping a piton before an short leftward hand traverse. Then I moved right, placing some cams in an easy lieback crack up and around a corner which required some nervy friction moves. We were moving very fast, especially since the belay anchors consisted of little but wrapping a sling around a tree or block. Steve then led up a short friction slab and onto easier ground near the summit. I traversed rightward to an easier scrambling route, and we carried the rope up from there. Soon, we stood on top, admiring the nice, flat summit and wishing we could bivy there for the night! We waved to climbers on the summit of South Early Winter Spire, and they waved back.
Feeling like we still had plenty to do, we headed down, with two rappels, some downclimbing, then three more rappels with our single 50 meter rope. The final rappels were on an impressive steep face which led to the snowy notch we had ascended that morning.
Drinking some water, we gave up on Concord Tower after seeing that the route was indeed very wet. Worried about where John was and if he had set up the tent, we started down the colouir, hoping to get a glimpse of him in the valley below.
The snow had softened a lot, and we made deep steps on the way down. I slipped at one point, but was able to quickly arrest my fall by digging the ice axe into the wet snow. Halfway down, Steve spied the tent, and waved to John, who was building a very nice recessed kitchen with his shovel. It looked like a hot tub made out of snow! We quickly reached the tent, pretty tired, and ate some lunch.
The afternoon had become very hot, and we were content to take it easy around camp, eating and drinking. As the day heated up, we saw several avalanches, including a close call for one party. All of this reinforced the rule to climb early and return safely before late afternoon.
After an excellent dinner of Mountain Swill, we walked up to look at the start of the SW Arete on the Spire. It looked excellent, but the rain clouds to the west didn’t look so hot. Within 5 minutes, we’d glissaded and plunge-stepped back to camp, ready to turn in. Married men all, we became a bit wistful for the attention of our wives as the cold and lonely night descended.
Sometime in the night, the disappointing patter of raindrops woke us, but we said nothing. Perhaps we hoped it was a dream, or fueled a tiny spark of optimism that we knew would flicker before the harsh judgment of peers?
In the morning, Steve was especially confident that we could make the climb. The rain had continued, but it’s impression was exaggerated within the tent. Outside, the rock next to the tent was actually pretty dry. Although we started later than intended, we pushed up to the ridge with rope, harness and rack, and Steve took the first pitch, John having stayed back to disassemble the tent and carry it out.
We were lucky, the day was perfect for climbing. High clouds that neither dropped moisture nor obscured visibility. They simply kept things cool and held thirst at bay. I got the chimney pitch and despite worrying overmuch about it, found it too easy (just when it was getting interesting, I reached over the lip of the chockstone and it was over!). From here, the climb followed a gully for several pitches, with helpful trees as belay anchors. The bird’s-eye view improved, and we saw parties approaching the climb far below. Also two dogs chasing their owner who skied playfully ahead. Somewhere in here we saw a big avalanche caused by a large cornice fall. It took out many trees in the basin where we camped. John had picked a good spot for us, free from such worries by the nature of the slope and what lay above!
Steve and I were still alone on the route as we crossed the last difficulty, an exposed friction hand traverse along a 15 foot slab. A controversial bolt protects the move, and apparently angry climbers have removed it in the past, feeling that it makes the route too easy. Whatever! We clipped it, but we wouldn’t have been disturbed had it not been there either.
Some exposed scrambling led to the summit, where we plopped down, loosened our shoes and bundled up, determined to enjoy the view for at least an hour, rather than being all in a huff, and not getting our full money’s worth, as it were! Our patience was rewarded, as we had time to sit and enjoy the view from many different vantage spots, talking about future climbs on Cutthroat Peak across the highway, Silver Star Mountain, Kangaroo Ridge and the Wine Spires.
Steve found an enormous colony of ladybugs on the 8200 foot summit! There were thousands of them huddled in cracks, protected from the wind. Now we know these excellent creatures come from high mountaintops, like prophets! Listen to what they have to say…
A mottled ptarmigan visited each of the 5 nearby summits in turn, lingering near us for a long while. We thought he’d go to work on the colony, but he left them be. Not ripe yet?
Finally, we saw climbers approaching, and decided to head down to avoid a bottleneck. Just as we did this, the wind picked up and it started raining again. We waited for a guided group of 6 to cross the friction slab, then waited for another guided group to climb a small gully we needed to rappel. Very happy to be on our way down, rather than up like them, we were amused by a threesome who sang as they climbed upward into the wind. This bit of irreverent fun lightened our spirits, and we continued swiftly down on several rappels.
I made the last rappel, and heard Steve shout “Rock!” Foolishly looking up, I saw a brown blur speeding towards me. I quickly hunkered down under my helmet, preparing for impact! An angel was nearby, for the rock struck a tree just to my left. Again Steve shouted, and this time I ran from the face as fast as possible, not even hearing an impact. When I told Steve about the near miss, he shouted up to the guided party above to quit knocking rocks down for just two minutes until we were both clear. They didn’t answer, but the rockfall stopped. Safely away from the wall, we somewhat shakily made our traditional congratulatory handshakes!
Special thanks to John for making our beautiful camp, and doing all the driving.