The Good and The-Ugly-Truth-about-Lessons-Learned

Our goal: To climb the ultra classic Beckey Route on Liberty Bell, a chunk of rock that is part of a group of spires in the North Cascades mountain range, west of Washington Pass.
Trailhead: 5,200 feet at Blue Lake Trailhead
Base of route: 7,400 feet
Summit: 7,800 feet
Route: Grade II, 5.6
Liberty Bell from the Blue Lake Trailhead

Liberty Bell July 09

HOW IT CAME TO BE:
A good combination of alpine (slogging up mountain sides, usually involving snow) and rock climbing (ascending rock faces in several pitches). We had an interesting variety of skill sets in our two-party group – two of us were trained rock climbing via mountaineering (Randy and me) and the other two are hardcore craggers (Sara and Don). I found this mix to be fascinating more and more as the weekend wore on.

Typically, when Randy suggests a trip, my mind immediately flips. He’s at a higher skill level than me and he’s always progressing. I just assume that any trip he suggests is going to be hard and out of my reach, mainly because he’s usually messing with my head about going to climb El Capitan or MonkeyFace. But when I take the time to think about it, he wouldn’t ask me to go on a trip if he knew I couldn’t do it. And he knows my skills the best. He’s also very quick to supplement me with web sites and pictures about the proposed trip.

But he when suggested rock climbing at 7,400 feet, I was unnerved.  Then he sent me the pictures and I thought, “wha? That’s it? Some slab climbing and a potential awesome chimney? No problem!”

But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t still nervous – about 90% nervous and 10% excited. As we got closer to our Saturday morning ascent, I’d pull Randy aside and say, “I’m so nervous, I really need your support on this, do you think I can do this?” He didn’t even blink an eye and said, “You’re going to be fine. Don’t worry about it.”

After the 5th time I asked, I finally calmed down and just before bed Friday night, the emotions turned and excitement settled in.

THE CLIMB

The initial approach: 1.5 miles of sweet, easy and beautiful forested hiking. A cool Saturday morning, 7 a.m., a perfect time for a hike.

We then came upon the climbers trail. The easy trail wound its way through the thinning forest as we gained elevation, then through a few snow patches before opening into a steep boulder field. Liberty Bell, Concord Tower, Lexington Tower, North and South Early Winter spires loomed above us. The last slog was climbing up the steep gully to the notch between Liberty Bell and Concord Tower, where we’d settle for the day.Liberty Bell Concord Tower

The tower second from right is Liberty Bell.

This slog was interesting. Poor Sara had an asthma attack , which she pulled through calmly and educated us on such conditions. We took it easy heading up the trail, more so when the trail turned less from a trail and more into a scree field of soft dirt and loose rock. The terrain was frustrating and rocks would be knocked loose as we climbed. The guide books say this is the hardest part of the entire experience when climbing this group of spires. While getting up it was bad, we knew coming down would be way uglier.

But we reached the notch between Liberty Bell and Concord Tower safely and not deterred from our goal. However, because the Beckey route is SO popular, we had to wait in line to climb it. We chilled on the notch, ate and put together a backpack of food and water for our climb, which turned out to be not such a good idea.

Sara and Don went ahead of us and  you could hear them calling to each other along the route. Randy and I soon geared up and he started leading the first pitch. At this point, I wasn’t nervous anymore – I felt safe and comfortable at this elevation and environment. Plus, you couldn’t beat the views.

View from Notch

View from the notch between Liberty Bell and Concord Tower. Guy on right is at the base of the Beckey Route on Liberty Bell.

FIRST PITCH

This was our first multi-pitch trad climb together. That means Randy scrambles up rock, places protection in the form of various gear, as in nuts and hexes, into cracks in the rock. The gear has carabiners on the end of them, where he clips in the rope, so he’s protected from any major falls. If he falls, the protection he has placed will help catch him, but he also relies on me at the bottom of the route to catch him as well with our rope system. He did an EXCELLENT job of placing pro and didn’t fall at all. It’s a very heady job.

When he reaches the  end of the first pitch, he anchors himself to the rock and belays me up.  As I climb, I “clean” the gear that he has placed. That’s an interesting job for sure – holding on with one hand to a  jug or crack while pulling, twisting and sometimes yanking out a piece of pro. If you’re lucky, you get a little itty bitty 1-inch ledge to stand on to rest and use both hands to pull gear.

The first pitch wasn’t bad at all, lots of jugs to grab and pull oneself up. The second pitch was where we ran into our first gear issue.

NEED A NEW BACKPACK

Remember that backpack? It’s a decent sized day pack with a thick hip belt. First problem was that it covered my harness and gear loops so I couldn’t efficiently clip the gear onto my loops. Plus, it prevented my head from being able to look up at where I was going. It felt like an alpine climb for sure. All I needed was the ice axe shoved into the space between my back and pack.

After the first pitch, we untangled rope, made and remade anchor systems, then Randy continued up the second pitch. Eventually, he anchored in and I started climbing.

Then I got to the chimney. Chimney isn’t anything too special in rock climbing other than completely awesome to climb up – an three-walled open-column that you must climb up (unless you’re super awesome and can climb up on the straight vertical wall on both sides of it, like SpiderMan with sticky hands). Oh and this had a large chockstone at the top of it that you had to climb up and over. Climbing chimneys involves “stemming” – putting your feet on one wall in front of you and your back and hands against the opposite wall and just shove yourself up. It’s actually a really fun technique and I really enjoy doing it. I’m so small too that I can usually enjoy it more than folks bigger than me.

But back to the pack – bottom line – I wasn’t going to chimney up the route with the pack on  my back. So I clip it on to my harness so it dangled between my legs and started climbing. I make it up and over the chockstone and, whahoo! i’m up over the crux! Oh, wait, why do I feel so light? Where … oh, the pack. It’s still at the bottom of the chimney – it somehow came unclipped from my harness and was resting in the  chimney. So I have Randy lower me and after a few other ideas and up and down attempts, I say screw it, and sling it on to a tree nearby. We’ll retrieve it later.

After that, that rest of the climb was perfect – I make it up to Randy at the second belay station; he leads the third route, which is nothing but slab. That’s great for me on top rope, because I can just walk up it since our climbing shoes “stick” to this type of rock surface. But for gear leaders, it’s a little sketchy – there’s usually little placement for putting in gear. But Randy did a great job and we made it up safely to the false summit of the Beckey Route.

The “real” summit involved scrambling 200 feet to the top with a 10-foot 5.7 grade slab climb in the middle. Randy brought up some rope and belayed Sara and I up. I continued on to the summit and we had a  fantastic 360-degree view of every peak of the North Cascades as far as the eye could see. It was simply quite amazing. Plus,  a summit picture, of course.

beckey summit

Courtesy of rockclimbergirl.com

Courtesy of rockclimbergirl.com

RAPPELLING … THEN LEARNING ABOUT STUCK ROPES

Then, back down. It involved downclimbing the summit, then downclimbing some more to the first rappel station. Don set up the rappel, which ended on a small ledge with a tree anchor. We all hunkered down on the wee ledge while Don set up the second rappel. The end of the rope got caught below but he was able to rappel down safely and fix it and make to the ground. Randy, myself and Sara then rappeled back down and next thing you know, we’re back at our packs at the notch.

But Randy and I STILL had to go back up and get my backpack. SO – we climb the first pitch again. He sets up rappel, I throw on the pack, we rappel back down. We then try to pull the rope down to retrieve it but, alas! it’s stuck! This was another first for us but the second gear issue at the end of a very long day. After some hemming and hawing, he and I teamed up and muscled the rope down together by pulling really, really hard and got it down. We thought for a second he was going to have to buy me a new rope.

OH but the day wasn’t over – we still had that nasty gully to descend. Some professional rock guides that were climbing in the area had suggested hugging the base of Concord Tower as we made our way down. I essentially practiced finger traversing and mantles along this wall to get myself down, as well as a lot of scootching down on hands and feet and bum.

We got out of the danger zone, attempted to find the trail back to the forest, got a wee bit lost (we were over too far right) but FINALLY made it down to the obvious trail, which seemed to get lost, then show up again randomly, before we hit the forest and our little easy-peasy trail again back to the car.

After a VERY long 1.5 mile hike, it was 10 p.m. and we were toast. I didn’t care about the flesh-eating mosquitoes anymore that had chased us all day. I laid down on the ground and laughed hysterically over the previous 12 hours of events. The whole day was a bit scary, frustrating, maddening, humorous and gratifying.

I’d do it again tomorrow.

For another version of this trip report, plus more technicalities about the climb, go to http://www.rockclimbergirl.com.

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