Last minute decision – join as a 4th member on an adventure to the Chilliwack region, objective undetermined, or stick with the original plan to shred the Stevens Pass Mountain Bike park. I guess it is a no brainer – Alpine prevails. Frankie invited me to join his group the afternoon before heading north from Bellingham, but it wasn’t until 10 pm that night when I agreed to be a member. Not that I haven’t had last-minute adventures develop in the past, but this time the objective I found to be a bit more committing than usual.
Mt. Slesse’s Northeast Buttress has a reputation being one of the 50 classic climbs of North America. It also has a dark past. Slesse is the site of the 1956 Trans Canada Airlines flight 810 accident where a full passenger aircraft smashed into the mountain side, killing everyone on board.
We all gathered at Frankie’s house in Bellingham at 3 a.m., Guillaume, Eben and myself. After an early morning burrito and a quick discussion about gear we hit the road in Frank’s Dodge diesel headed for Tim Horton’s (aka Canada, also literally Tim Horton’s).
As the city of Chilliwack faded behind us we discussed our objectives for the weekend and settled on two options. Climb Slesse’s Northeast Buttress or head up to the Nesakwatch Tower zone and climb stellar alpine rock. After several wrong turns, a new dent in the truck involving a large stump, and at least one full parking area, we settled on climbing the Northeast Buttress, an objective that Gui had previously completed. Only one problem remained.
As we began organizing gear at the trailhead it became quickly apparent that somehow only one rope had made it into the truck (fortunately for me that rope was mine, relieving me of all blame). After some hot discussions on whose fault it was, the decision was made to drive back to Chilliwack and pick up a new rope so that the adventure could continue. Eben and I had the pleasure of a parking lot bivy session while Gui and Frank made the trip back.
It must have been after 10 by the time the guys returned to the trailhead. With all of the gear properly packed we started up the trail. It was hot hiking through the logged zones in the direct sun but we kept a solid pace to the flight 810 memorial before getting geared up in harness and helmet. Off-trail travel began here as we crossed the granite slabs leading us to the access ramp to the NEB.
Mt. Slesse is composed of two rock types, the lower half being diorite, a salt-and-pepper granitic rock that makes for solid rock and quality climbing. The slabs steepened as the north face of the mountain jutted from the slabs leading to the access ramp. The ramp shoots out right directly at the base of the huge wall, bypassing the 5.10c direct start variation. It was easy climbing on the ramp however its grassy and dirty nature did not inspire great comfort above the still air below. After a few class-4 trees we gained the buttress and roped together.
I partnered with Eben as Frank and Gui took the lead. The lower portion of the route is easy class-5 climbing with solid gear and fun position. The first challenges appeared as we entered the direct variation a couple of pitches below the bivy ledge. Gui took the lead as the three of us watched from below, and slightly to the side, at a reasonable nearly-hanging belay. Gui is a strong climber and the slower-than-usual pace he set through this pitch suggested that the rock quality left something to be desired. He was most of the way through the pitch when we heard him scream, “rock!”
It was one of those screams that immediately makes your stomach sink. Guilluame, who was now hanging by his hands 40 meters above us, had dislodged a microwave-sized block that was hurtling down toward us. It disappeared behind the shallow ridge crest just as I caught a glimpse of it, and its trajectory was unknown to the three of us at the belay station. Unfortunately for me I was anchored in with no slack and nowhere to go so I don’t blame Frankie or Eben for huddling beneath me. Looking up, waiting for uncertainty, the rock never came. It had chosen a different path.
The scent of busted rock was fresh in my mind.
Gui finished the pitch and Frank followed him. It was my lead so I began up the pitch on my 8.9mm single line. My head was in a weird place as I entered the loose zone nearing the top of the pitch, the idea of a loose rock effortlessly splitting my floss-like rope. The real challenge of this pitch came as I entered the roof that requires committing to a loose-looking block. With a head full of uncertainty I made the move and the block held. Two more fun pitches and we were at the bivy.
The psychological approach to alpine climbing varies greatly among climbers. I was relieved to be at the bivy with a group of light-hearted and goofy guys. We had an evening of alpine cocktails and I took some photos before calling it a night. This bivy ledge left little to be desired. It was the Cadillac of ledges, you might say.
Sunrise was nothing short of primo as light warmed us on the ledge. We geared up and climbed about 40 meters to the only snow-patch on route to collect and melt water. With mostly full water bottles we continued through easy simul-climbing terrain along the ridge crest up toward the steeper rock above.
The rock type changes to Darrington Phyllite as you move to the upper reaches of the mountain. While the rock remains solid it definitely changes in character, becoming less blocky and more textured with face holds and fewer cracks. Eben and I, following behind our friends, swapped leads to the summit where we found Gui and Frank resting in the shade of a boulder. Frankie found the summit register and read us some highlights that made us feel weak and pathetic compared to certain other climbers, but you can’t win them all.
It must have been about 3 p.m. when we began our descent from the summit, just 2 miles from the U.S. and only a few more from the mountains we all know so well on highway 542. We traversed southeast, rappelled down a short face, and continued down into a large gully system. A few more rappels and we discovered a higher route that traversed skier’s right around the mountain, relieving us from having to descend and climb hundreds of feet as we had previously suspected. A final 2-rope rap took us into hikeable terrain and, after descending too far and hiking back uphill, we were hiking along the ridge NW of Slesse looking for the exit raps leading back into the basin to our north.
Frankie found the rap station and we quickly abseiled down and descended into the basin below. We found a melting snowfield that was just too dirty to drink comfortably, despite having run out of water hours prior. After two sandy slurps I decided to persevere to a better source of water, as did everyone else. With the exit-drainage finally visible below us we dropped off the ridge and navigated through the boulders, scree, and slab until at last we found a raging torrent of water. Thank God! With full water bottles we pounded out the steep exit trail back to the hiking trail. Frank and Eben gained distance on Gui and I but we all caught up at the river in the valley bottom before hiking up to the car as a group.
Tired but stoked we started the drive back to Bellingham. Only one last problem - The Border Patrol was not fond of Gui’s papers (Gui is French-Canadian and his paperwork and residency are legitimate). Totally annihilated from two monster days in the alpine we spent 45 minutes at the border, stinking and fighting against exhaustion near midnight, waiting for an agent to simply let Gui know he was free to go. A quick exchange of “words” about the event and we were finally making the last leg of the drive…