I’ve always wanted to do a rock first ascent in the Cascades, so when Eric Wehrly called, emailed, and sent me a text message to go climbing (he needed a bit of the drug we all love), I took the bait. The trip helped me to fulfill next years quota for bush-whacking, but we did ended up bagging a new route which we called “Act like you’re having fun”. We rated it grade III, 5.10+. Eric did a full write-up on CascadeClimbers.com, but since we brought the camera along, I wanted to share some more photos and the experience here.
A few weeks ago, Eric had sent me the above photo he had received from John Roper that wet my appetite. Though he promised a new route, I couldn’t fit it into my schedule at the time. Roper’s photo shows the “Grim Reaper” arrete on Fallen Angel on Teebone, which is south of Newhalem.
As I mentioned, Eric then called a few weeks later with a promise for a 2-day adventure, for which he had mapped a “quick” 1/2 day approach. The idea was to leave early in the morning from Seattle, meet him midway, and park as far as we could drive down Newhalem Creek. From there, we would follow an abandoned road (state of the trail unknown), before embarking on a short bush-whack across a junction of the Newhalem Creek and head up through the old growth to the basin beneath the climb. This approach from the north was per Eric rumored to be less heinous than the traveling and side-hilling that had to be done from the south. The next day, we would climb, and hike out. That was the plan anyway.
The full Cascades experience:
Having made it into Bear Mountain near the Canadian border several years ago, I am familiar with the many obstacles that traveling in thick over-grown forest in the Cascades has to offer. This trip greatly expanded my belief of just how fun a few miles and 3000′ can be. It took us 9 hours to approach the climb from the car, and 9 hours to get back on our day out. The photo below shows roughly the route we took.
The approach involved a river crossing:
and some mid-5th mossy chimney stemming:
After reaching the alpine cirque below Fallen Angel and scarfing down a quick dinner, Eric and I caught some Zs. We woke up to a blue morning light that provided enough illumination to see our objective. Throughout a casual breakfast we eyed what we thought would be a reasonable route up the lower approach pitches. We began our scramble up to the base as sunlight flooded the valley, and new features began to emerge on the lower cliffs. As we got closer, we continually adapted the plan to match the terrain features that came into view. We scrambled up 150ft, before we pulled out the rope and I ended up on belay in my approach shoes. Between Eric and I, we did a few 70m+ pitches to reach a band of white gneiss, where we would transitioned for some of the ‘harder’ climbing.
With rock shoes on, I led through a meandering pitch through various ramps (5.7, 65m) in very solid rock to the base of the weakness on the left side of the Grim Reaper arrete. Here Eric took over. Before heading up the weakness he took a peak around the corner to see what the right side of the arrete offered. Just left of the crest he spotted a finger crack which began 40 ft off the ledge, and widened substantially before converging with a fin feature higher up. He decided to opt out of this, and instead continued up above us via face climbing on overlaps to a stance (5.8, 15m).
The belay Eric had built positioned me to tackle the stellar, clean .75″ crack above us. I led up the crack, which was interrupted by jugs on wedged blocks, before allowing for to a layback sequence and hand traverse to the right. Mid-way through the layback I passed a very sharp and very delicate widow-maker flake which Eric would later trundle by accident. Instead of building a belay on the ledge at the end of the hand traverse, I continued up another leftward rail which contained various finger pods and jams. The climbing quality changed drastically here as moss, lichen, and dirt suddenly appeared unavoidable. My movement drastically slowed as I alternated between wiping lichen off my rock shoes, gardening with the mountain axe clipped to my harness, and placing gear, which I did at about a 1 ft interval. I topped out this section to find a decent stance at converging cracks that also required a substantial amount of gardening (5.10+, 45m). Though Eric and I found the second half of this pitch to be quiet strenuous, particularly given how dirty it was, we were astounded that we had found such a pristine line right on the the Grim Reaper arrete. Very cool! We later decided to call this pitch “The Scythe”, given its position on the arrete, in combination with the belayer-slayer death flakes we trundled.
Above us, the last crux of the route remained. Eric cleaned a large chunk of moss and the crack underneath, before tackling the committing, dynamic mantle onto a ledge above. This pitch continued up broken terrain to 15m below the summit (5.10, 30m).
Eric and I swung leads once or twice and managed to top out on the north, and slightly higher, summit tower of Fallen Angel. We reveled briefly about the short but amazing climb that we had somehow stumbled across, and spent the next 15 minutes debating descent options.
To descend, we decided to make rappels down the south face of Fallen Angel into the beautiful cirque. We burned a few Dyneema slings (both short and longer), which we sometimes wedged behind bocks by bashing in a chockstone with our mountain axe. Our luck continued to hold all the way to the base, and after 4 short, very safe, 65m rappels we began to down-climb the last few meters.
After pulling our ropes we continued along ledges that led East, and despite my determination to lead us up the wrong gully in an effort to shortcut the route back to camp, we still managed to return to our bivvy in an hours’ time.
One more night. One more long day:
Eric, with his sage widsom, was able to convince me that it was not worth starting the descent back to the car at 4pm. Instead we sat at camp and debriefed the day. Eric had also been able to convince me the day before that it was worth bringing a 16 oz beer in my pack all the way in. With time to kill, we enjoyed our beers and kicked back as the sun set.
The next day, we woke early in an effort to make our established “you should start to worry” times that we had left with a wife and friends. It would be dishonest to call the descent, which consisted of side-hilling on wet, steep meadows, down-climbing a steep ever-running gully of waterfalls, crawling 200m through dense alder, and post-holing through rotten logs, anything but torture. The fact that I had a small bar for breakfast and ran out of food by 10am didn’t help either.
After sharing in our misery for 9 hours or so, we made it back to the car, more stashed beers, a worried set of friends (we missed our check-in time), and a “shower” in the cold river. What a life!
-Small mountain axe with hammer for cleaning cracks or nailing pins
-Set of tri-cams, 11 slings, small and medium nuts, and a single rack to #4, with doubles to .4
-Single 70m Sterling Nano (9.0?)
-Closed-cell foam pad and 15 degree bag
-No water sani, we drank from the streams
-Based on the assumption that we would be spending a modest two days out, I brought:
- a banana, and some dates, and a handful nuts for the “walk” in
- 3 Probars (370 calories each, and $1.50 at Grocery Outlet) few other smaller bars for eating on the go
- some cooked sweet potatoes + half can of sardines for night 1
- 500 cal freeze dried dinner + can of sardines for breakfast the next day
The above totaled to around 4000 cal for three full days out. It goes without saying that I was a bit hungry, and even with the very generous supplemental bites from Eric here and there, I had to closely ration my food. Once I realized we were in the for the long haul, the freeze dried dinner and sardines became dinner on night 2, and bars were for breakfast.
I would have brought a lighter bag if I had one, and the closed cell pad was great in that it was highly durable (I wasn’t worried about popping it on the sharp rocks at our bivvy), but it added some bulk on the outside of my pack that made bush travel more challenging.
This was my first rock FA in the Cascades, and I would say one of the most enjoyable parts was finding our way in, up, and out. Patience and optimism were integral to our success, as we continually had to re-plan the approach, route, and descent, given each little piece of information we gained as we turned corners. Though it was painful at times, I appreciated Eric’s ability to know when it was time to backtrack for a different route, or to push on into a committing terrain decision. This last skill is something I hadn’t necessarily practiced as much, given that I have mostly spent my time climbing established routes.
Technical beta for similar challenges:
-Tri-cams and a mountain axe (+hammer) were key to success. In the dirt-choked cracks, cams were dubious at best. Cleaning with the axe, then placing active gear that didn’t require friction to engage was extremely valuable. In addition to its usefulness in cleaning, the axe doubled as a hammer to bash in chockstones during our rappel.
-Nuun and good bars were a key to success. I enjoyed real food on the hike in and day one, but these nutrient dense, albiet more processed food sources, definitely kept me going with high levels of electrolytes.